How Pearl Jam Found Happiness With ‘Yield’
With their fifth studio album, Yield, Pearl Jam did the last rebellious thing they could; they allowed themselves to be happy.
The journey to this point had been spectacular but also disorienting. On the back of their seminal debut album Ten, Pearl Jam went from upstart Seattle club band to international superstars. Follow-ups Vs. and Vitalogy would cement the group as one of the biggest bands on Earth, a title that brought with it incredible weight.
"Are we five great musicians?," guitarist Stone Gossard pondered to the New York Times. "No. We're just an average kind of white-boy rock band that could play pretty well together and had some ideas for some songs. We have something special, and we have a great singer, but there was a long time in the band of feeling insecure about the fact that we had sold so many records.''
With 1996’s No Code the band looked to break from their grunge-rock sound, instead delving into more experimental territory. Friction within the group started to surface and the recording sessions were reportedly contentious. The result was an uneven effort, and though the album sold over a million copies, it was regarded as a commercial failure.
“People who talk about numbers say it was disappointing,'' frontman Eddie Vedder noted. ''But that's only because they're talking about the numbers they projected. Is it disappointing if you start at zero and it sells a million? That's kind of exciting.”
Regardless of one’s perspective of No Code, there was no doubt the album had taken its toll on the band. Add in a much-publicized battle with Ticketmaster -- which included band members testifying in court, as well as an attempt to circumvent the ticketing corporation while touring the U.S. -- and Pearl Jam were exhausted. With stress and expectations continuing to hit new highs, the group began questioning whether pressing forward would be worth the effort.
''We got together and asked ourselves, 'Do we still want to be a band?''' guitarist Mike McCready admitted. ''The answer was yes, but we decided we needed to get off the road and figure out our priorities.''
Those priorities included removing as much outside pressure as possible and reconnecting with what made each member fall in love with music in the first place. The band also agreed on a more democratic approach to decision-making, an effort to open up healthy communication within the group. Perhaps the most notable change, every band member would be involved in music- and lyric-writing for the next LP, a role that Vedder had previously shouldered by himself.
“It was a great relief for me 'cause I got to spend more time doing other things than struggling with lyrics,” the singer confessed. With less of the burden falling on Vedder, the frontman was able to relax and enjoy the process more. Bassist Jeff Ament added that the more unified approach to songwriting also made “everybody feel like they're an integral part of the band.”
The new work dynamic also allowed for healthier relationships within the group. In a conversation with Guitar World, McCready said he had been been uneasy around Vedder while working on previous albums. “I used to be afraid of him and not want to confront him on things. I felt I was always walking on eggshells around him,” the guitarist revealed. However, McCready noted a very different vibe while creating Yield. “Now I just feel more confident and comfortable with myself, and maybe the mutual respect comes out of that. We talk more now, and hang out and stuff now.”
With every Pearl Jam member contributing, songs for the album began taking shape. "Stone was writing music and lyrics. Jeff had music and lyrics. I had music and lyrics,” Vedder recalled in a conversation with MTV. “We were able to team up. Have a partnership there and team up and write together on (Yield)."
“Before, we'd bring in fragments of music, and it often took a few hours before Eddie could have something to try and sing with,” Ament explained. “Now we were all able to work off each other's demos and begin to hammer something out after 20 minutes or so. It was so much easier to approach these songs as ‘our,’ as opposed to ‘my,’ song.”
Among the tracks Ament brought to the table were “Pilate” and “Low Light.” The bassist expressed excitement watching his bandmates work on his ideas. “For those guys to let down their egos and get into it, to sit playing bass in the studio and watch Eddie put his heart into singing lyrics that I wrote, was an experience I can't put into words.”
The album’s lead single was “Given to Fly,” a track penned by McCready after a Seattle snowstorm left him sequestered inside his home. “I was just kind of stuck,” he remembered. “I couldn’t get out of my driveway to go anywhere. So I just plunked down with the guitar and started riffing around.”
The result was Yield’s defining song; a track which drew comparisons to Led Zeppelin for its powerful crescendo and shifting dynamics. "I built it like a wave on the ocean," McCready explained. "It starts out slow and small, then builds until it gets really large, then breaks like a wave and gets small again. ... [T]he whole thing sounds very positive and very free, which is totally what I wanted."
Of course, Pearl Jam still knew how to rock, as evidenced by the emphatic “Do the Evolution.”
"'Evolution' is my favorite song," Vedder admitted to MTV. "I can listen to like it's some band that just came out of nowhere. I just like the song. I was able to listen to it as an outside observer and just really play it over and over. Maybe because I was singing it from a third person so it didn't really feel like me singing."
Regardless of whether they were delivering a poignant ballad or hard-hitting rocker, Pearl Jam sounded crisper and more energized on Yield than they had in years. The album, released on Feb. 3, 1998, earned glowing reviews. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and would go platinum less than two months after release. The band attributed their renewed vigor to a new, more positive outlook.
“I’m getting older. I’m tired of being pissed off,” Vedder admitted. “I don’t think it’s so cool anymore. And I don’t think it’s cool to be dull and boring and happy all the time, either. But it’s definitely a balance.”
Gossard also pointed to natural maturity, as the band moved past their growing pains with fame. “We’re getting older, 30s. Not so wound up anymore,” the guitarist explained. “Maybe a little bit better at letting stuff slide. A little bit more grateful and happy about looking back and thinking that we’re still a band after all these years and it’s a good thing.”
In the early days of grunge, the concept of being happy would have repulsed the band. Still, as Pearl Jam evolved and the ‘90s began coming to a close, Ament admitted the group was ready to cast off their acrimonious characterization. “I think, if you go out and you watch us play, and if you see us live, I think you’ll see that we don’t hate what we do. That we really, really care about what we do and really, really love what we do.”