Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Favorite Album - Le Malon's Contribution

Band: Pearl Jam
Album: Yield
Released: February 1998
Peak Billboard Chart position: 2 (first week it was released)

I was tempted to go the route of The McBee with this. As a music fan, picking one album over the rest is nearly impossible. How can I rate the relative merits of albums in completely different genres? Miles Ahead vs. Blood on the Tracks? James Brown Live at the Apollo vs. OK Computer? That's not even getting into 400+ years of classical music. Trying to objectively pick the "best album" is a frustrating and ultimately fruitless endeavor. This is why I was relieved that Evan asked for our "favorite album" instead.

"Favorite" is easier because you can focus less on being a critic and more on just being a person who likes music. Emotion comes into play, as does personal experience. Your favorite album doesn't have to be the best one, and mine qualifies.

Which takes us to sometime near December 21, 1997.  I am a high school freshman. My mom has just picked me up from a half day at school, and my Christmas break (I went to a Catholic school so we called it that) had begun. I think we had to finish our Christmas shopping, so we headed to the Maine Mall in South Portland and decided to get lunch at Pizza Hut (the old one next to the movie theater that isn't there anymore next to the IHOP that isn't there anymore). As we went down the highway in her Plymouth Voyager minivan (white with wood siding), she let me turn the radio to 94.3, WCYY ("Portland's New Rock Alternative!"), and as I did a new Pearl Jam song came on the radio for the first time. The song was "Given to Fly."

I was pretty much floored by it, and clearly so was the DJ - who liked it so much he immediately played it again. He compared it to their early hit "Alive" in terms of how exciting of a first impression it made on him. I was already a big Pearl Jam fan, but this moment locked in a musical obsession that is still a big part of who I am today.

Having thoroughly consumed the band's entire catalogue, and closely read any biographical piece I could get my hands on (before wikipedia was invented and we all knew everything about everything), I have long been frustrated that Yield wasn't more successful commercially, or more appreciate for how important it is.

Prior to the recording of Yield, Pearl Jam was a band on the verge of blowing up. They (especially Eddie Vedder) were never fully comfortable with being famous, they were always insecure about their place either in the mass-stardom of being a chart-topping arena rock band or in the circles of the indie acts whose approval they craved. They stopped making music videos, they went through drummers like Spinal Tap, and they took on a monumental fight against Ticketmaster that drained all of the energy they had until they were relegated to playing random fairgrounds to stubbornly stay outside the corporate behemoth's reach. The quality of their performances started to suffer, culminating in Vedder storming off stage one night in California (in a bizarre show where Neil Young tried to step in as frontman).

Things started to ease off with No Code, which featured Jack Irons (a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) on drums. Irons is the primary reason Pearl Jam exists as we know it. He is the one who had the great idea to give an instrumental demo tape of some dudes from Seattle jamming to a gas station attendant in San Diego named Eddie Vedder, who promptly wrote lyrics and turned those songs into "Alive," "Once," and "Footsteps." Irons came in and provided calm, stability, and mentorship.
No Code is the sound of a band trying to work its way through its angst. Yield is the sound of a band exhaling, accepting, and moving forward into adulthood. Brendan O'Brien finally nailed the kind of production they wanted; a more natural sound that emphasized drums (it's indicative of their general angst that they hated the production on "Ten," only their best-selling album ever). It's the most democratic album in their discography - every member contributes to the songwriting and 4 songs (more than any other record) have no songwriting input from Vedder at all.

It opens with the punk burner "Brain of J," which foreshadows a general theme of letting go of past burdens with the line "the name I'm letting go." It then moves right into "Faithful," an open-ended (and catchy as hell) meditation on faith and life's challenges that both questions religion while accepting some sense of forces beyond the band's control.

The album then slips into a churning, rumbling "When The Levee Breaks"-esque "No Way," written by guitarist Stone Gossard, which its chants of "I'll stop trying to make a difference." It somehow makes crying uncle sound liberating.

There are plenty of other great examples I can point to on this album, but for the sake of brevity I'll only point to three more:

"Low Light," written by Jeff Ament, has grown into one of my favorite songs of theirs. Good lyrics, great vocals, awesome use of 3/4 time, and a Beatles-esque piano-driven outro.

"In Hiding" is the albums emotional climax, in my opinion. Vedder's lyrics in this song come closer to laying his emotional state on the line than in any other on the record. Musically upbeat, and the best-sung song on the record, he takes them to the brink of despair in two verses, belts out the first chorus, and then emerges with the following stanza:

It's been about three days now
Since I've been aground
No longer overwhelmed and it seems so simple now
It's funny when things change so much
It's all state of mind

This is the most important song on what I view as their most important album.

After "In Hiding," the band adds an unnecessary penultimate track, "Push Me Pull Me" that hits what I view as the albums only off note, but then it closes beautifully with the Stone Gossard-penned "All Those Yesterdays."

Anchored by a nifty Jeff Ament bass riff, this is another Beatles-inspired tune that amounts to a big sigh to end the record. Lyrically, its an exhortation to shrug off your past baggage. I've always wondered if Gossard wrote the lyrics as a message to the band basically saying "you're not going to change the world in one fell swoop. stop. rest. breathe."

I loved this album as an angsty 15 year-old, but I love it even more now that I actually understand it better. I am 30 years-old, married with a baby daughter and a full-time job. I've always thrown myself head first and all the way in when it comes to the stresses in my life. It's not a sustainable way to live, though, as I get older. For the sake of myself and everyone else in my life, it is essential that I know how to compartmentalize, to prioritize, and to let go when I have to (not that it's easy!). It's always a bit cliched-sounding to say that you relate to an album or a song, but this album hits me on a gut level now more than ever before.

It may not be as brilliant as some of the commonly-cited great releases in the pop canon, but it deserves more recognition than it receives from both Pearl Jam die-hards and general rock fans alike. But that lack of appreciation doesn't bother me now as much as it used to......"favorite music" is about moments in our lives, how we felt at the time and how we feel about them now. It's about repeating that first snare drum hit in "Like a Rolling Stone" on Il Giovine's re-mastered copy of "Highway 61" 15 times at that party in Connecticut Heights; it's about how a really sad and insecure 8th-grader felt listening to "Evaporated" by Ben Folds on a walkman while trying to hold back tears on the bus; it's about the rabidly fundamentalist conviction that if you do not enjoy "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5 (as close to a perfect song as there is), then YOU DO NOT LIKE POP MUSIC. When the word "favorite" becomes involved, critical objectivity is a meaningless concept.

I love Pearl Jam, and I love "Yield." There is a lot of brilliant music out there, but for whatever reason nothing else worked for me and spoken to me as clearly and as consistently as this wonderful little album I first got excited about in a Pizza Hut parking lot over 15 years ago.

Le Malon is an expert cultural consumer residing in Biddeford, Maine. That secret is safe here. 

Click here for Atomic Sam's Contribution
Click here for La Swaynos's Contribution
Click here for Boulezian's Contribution
Click here for HaZmora's Contribution
Click here for The McBee's Contribution
Click here for Le Drgon's Contribution
Click here for The Brannock's Contribution
Click here for The Danny's Contribution
Click here for The Drioux's contribution
Click here for El Reyes's contribution
Click here for My contribtuion

No comments:

Post a Comment