Yield At 15: An Appreciation

by Jessica Letkemann on February 3, 2013

A deep dive into Pearl Jam’s 1998 album, “Yield,” which was released 15 years ago today.
"Yield" Album Cover -- Partial“Emerge Empowered.” – “Yield” liner notes for the song “In Hiding.”

Fifteen years ago today (Feb. 3), Pearl Jam released “Yield,” its last album of the ’90s — the decade that gave birth to the band and its fame. But the album, many fans’ favorite to this day, signaled a shift in Pearl Jam’s sound and its outlook. The young acclaimed group were now a palpably veteran entity, survivors of a glaring spotlight and a tenacious but ultimately impossible ticketing fight, but now rocking with a ferocious realistic optimism new to their music.

You need Spotify, which is free, to hear the song embeds here. If you don’t want to, just break out the album yourself.

In 1998, to hear Eddie Vedder sing “we’re faithfull, we all believe in it” — and take that “it” to mean what you want — was a surprise and a pleasure. From the protagonist of “Given To Fly,” who suffers being stabbed by faceless men but who “still stands” and “still gives his love” to the “I” in “No Way” giving out “a token of my openness,” the signs of this upward shift were all over the album, far easier to spot than the “Yield” road signs “Carpenter Newton” (alias Stone Gossard) had hidden throughout the liner notes. Sure in “No Way,” Stone wrote “I’ll stop trying to make a difference,” but he told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, “The chorus ended up saying maybe you, maybe we all need to just live life and quit trying to prove something. For me, the funnest part is the fact that Eddie’s singing the line about not making a difference.” To which Eddie said, “The way I can sing it is changing his idea slightly, by saying ‘I’ll stop trying — no way.’”

The album’s title itself was another possible clue to the band’s mindset – one of those perfectly Pearl Jam-esque triple-meanings where the many dictionary definitions of “Yield” include “to surrender to something, to grant or concede as due;” “to give way to something superior”  and “the amount produced;” “to give in return;” “to give forth by cultivation (eg. the mature crop a farmer reaps is his yield). But also, a yield is “the energy released in an explosion.” Hence you have a 14 song discourse between five musicians, the public, and the universe that is all at once a yield in all senses of the word. It’s a nod to yielding as in making way. It’s yielding in the spiritual/meta-societal sense mentioned — there are angels and “love that is saved” and the ideas of belief and faith threaded throughout as are plenty of ideas about human society (“I don’t mind touching on spirituality in the songs” Eddie told NME about “Yield” in 1998). It’s also a yield in its sense of a crop of creativity coming to fruition, and a yield in its combustive sense (listen to “Do The Evolution” live and tell me that doesn’t sound like an explosion).

Of course the album cover afforded yet another layer of meaning to the word “Yield.” Encasing the album was Jeff Ament’s photograph of a barren two-lane Montana road in the middle of nowhere with a “Yield” sign planted on the shoulder. The catch is, there’s nothing there to yield to. No other roads join the path. Does that mean yield to yourself? Does it point at one of the more productive meanings of the word? Take your pick. Like the band itself, the image works well because it poses questions, it doesn’t answer them.

Going back to this notion of realistic optimism and the idea of posing questions but not answering them, “Yield” is not merely a pair of rose-colored glasses. That would have rung false. “Realistic” is the key word. There is still darkness here, there is still distress here; “Do The Evolution” closes with “2010 watch it go to fire” and the Jeff’s cryptic “Pilate” (titled after a reviled Biblical figure, look it up) is full of self-depreciating lines like “one’s a crowd” and “stunned by my own reflection. . . not unlike a friend that politely drags you down.” But where uglier truths are addressed, often also is the idea that something should be done, something can be done. “You’ve been taught, whipped into shape / now they’ve got you in line,” in Vedder’s “Brain of J,” but “the whole world will be different soon / the whole world will be relieved.” In “Wishlist,” EV sings “I wish I was as fortunate, as fortunate as me.” In Ament’s “Low Light,” “I’ll find my way from wrong.” And “Given To Fly,” with Mike McCready’s soaring, Led Zeppelin-esque music and Ed’s words, is all about overcoming. Vedder told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998, “I really love singing the part at the end, which is about rising above anybody’s comments about what you do and still giving your love away. You know — not becoming bitter and reclusive, not condemning the whole world because of the actions of a few.”

Back in 1998 when I first heard it, “In Hiding” — Eddie’s tale of a solitary multi-day retreat into himself in a bid for enlightenment — struck me as having the lyric that most clearly described where Pearl Jam was at that time. “No longer overwhelmed, and it seems so simple now. / It’s funny when things change so much, it’s all state of mind.” Suddenly the band that put allusions to the myth of Sisyphus (who pushes the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down in an endless cycle) in the “Vitalogy” liner notes, the band that reeled from the death of Kurt Cobain, and the band whose glaring fame meant EV had stalkers and that when he’d “walk into the supermarket, people stare like I’m a dog” (“Lukin”), was now the band that issued forth this 14-song rocker that was plenty critical about the world but not unhappy and not without hope. “Brain of J” had started life live in 1995 with the down line “the whole world was different then,” and now in 1998, it had the up “the whole world will be different soon.” — a looking backward changed to a looking forward and a potential (though not a promise) for good.

The 47-date U.S. “Yield” tour that summer put that feeling on the road. Pearl Jam’s most extensive trek in five years — the non-Ticketmaster years — featured all these songs (and the rest of band’s already large catalog) fine-tuned into their prime form, with drummer Matt Cameron propelling it all for the first time.

But “In Hiding” also struck me as an interesting statement of “state of mind” then because of what Eddie himself had said six years before, as Pearl Jam was first rocketing to ubiquity. In 1992, Vedder had told U.K. publication Melody Maker, “I’m still trying to get in touch with myself. I’ve held my breath and swum as deep as I could down into myself and then had to come up for air or the pressure got too intense. My head felt like it was imploding. But I know I can go deeper. It’s just a matter of holding my breath longer. I want to hit the bottom of myself before I go hang out with a million people.” In 1998, here he was, with millions of people certainly listening, singing “I swallowed my breath and went deep / I was climbing, I was diving / I surfaced and all of my being was enlightened.”  The liner notes for the song echoed the positive result of this soul-searching, reading, in part, “emerge empowered.”

There’s plenty more to say, about the influence the band said that Daniel Quinn’s book “Ishmael” (a meta-societal treatise about human history) had on the album’s themes, about how “Yield” was drummer Jack Irons’ last album with Pearl Jam and how it was Matt Cameron’s first tour with them, about how this last pre-millennial album asked the big questions. “Let’s say hypothetically, the title does mean something,” Eddie told the New York Times in February, 1998. “You can fight so much, and then you have to think, ‘What are the real battles?’ ‘What’s really important?’”

But fifteen years later, what really matters about “Yield,” is that it, to borrow a phrase, “still stands.” The songs live, not as ’90s nostalgia, but as powerful — particularly when Ed, Jeff, Stone, Mike and Matt play them in concert — as the first time you hit “play” and heard that shout of “1,2,3,4!” at the start of “Brain of J.”

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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