Philadelphia Inquirer - February 8th, 1998

Calling off the crusades

Pearl Jam has toned down the attitude, even stopped tilting with Ticketmaster. Now, as it takes a thoughtful new album on tour, the group is willing -- even happy -- to talk it up.

By Tom Moon - INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC

 

The lyrics of "No Way" are so blunt, so open, so downright un-Pearl Jam.

 "I just want someone to be there for."

Then comes the chorus: "I'm not trying to make a difference, I'll stop trying to make a difference."

Is something wrong? Has the prototypical more-alternative-than-thou rock band grown disillusioned? Have those crusading champions of the common kid stopped fighting?

Once their scowling songs brought new seriousness to rock. They were passionate, moody. Yet, at the same time, they captured the slump-shouldered indifference of the plaid-flannel brigade. Now they've abandoned the posturing to focus on more basic themes. Has Pearl Jam actually learned to . . . yield?

"Why is that so hard to believe?" lead singer Eddie Vedder wonders testily, apparently tired of talking about the changes that led to Yield, the band's fifth album. The cagily titled 13-song collection, which just arrived in stores, reflects a new state of mind for the storied Seattle quintet, which previously avoided music-industry marketing devices such as interviews and music videos.

They're proud of the record, "happy" to do interviews about it, Vedder says from a Seattle rehearsal space. The making of Yield has been chronicled in a long-form video, the first time the band has allowed a filmmaker in its midst. More significantly, Pearl Jam will play a world tour with dozens of dates in the United States, some in venues han dled exclusively by Ticketmaster, the corporation with whom the band went to war in 1994 on the issue of service charges. The U.S. leg of the tour will begin in the West in late spring.

"We're not the same people we were five years ago," says Vedder, 31, trying to characterize the band's move away from grunge-era nihilism. "There's 'cool' and 'cynical,' which to me is dull and boring. It's a perfect way to get to youth -- you know, being sarcastic and saying everything sucks. At this point I'd have to fake it to do that.

"I'm a little more positive about the whole trip now," says the singer and guitarist, whose personal traumas (he learned his mother's husband was not his father only after his real father died) seem to have receded since he married Hovercraft bassist Beth Liebling in 1994. "We've had time to count some blessings. I'm in a tremendous position, being in a band and making music. I'd be an idiot not to enjoy the opportunity."

Ready for fun

As they return to active duty, Vedder and his cohorts -- guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Jack Irons -- seem determined to have fun.

Getting away for a few years -- and devoting energy to a constellation of side projects, including Brad, Three Fish and Mad Season -- "has been like a break in the storm," Gossard says. During the Ticketmaster uproar, say band members, everything was put under the media microscope, from the sales of commercially disappointing experiments such as No Code (1996), to the group's T-shirt prices and, most obviously, its touring strategy.

Vedder doesn't have any regrets about the battle with Ticketmaster, which led to a Justice Department probe of charges that the ticketing giant's exclusive contracts prevent competitors from staging shows in most arenas. But last year, he says, the band concluded that going with an alternate system just to avoid high service charges was a no-win situation.

"The Justice Department said there was no monopoly, but we're still not able to play [ any large venues in ] Philadelphia and New York and Chicago" without Ticketmaster. "Hopefully, our audience understood why we weren't playing. It's too bad if it was damaging for us. When you make a stand, there's always going to be a sacrifice. If it makes people think when they look at that [Ticketmaster service charge ] , then we did what we could do."

Pearl Jam's more relaxed state of mind doesn't guarantee smooth sailing, however, and the band members find themselves in an unenviable position. The kids they galvanized with "Jeremy" and other songs from 1991's astonishing breakthrough, Ten, which has sold more than 9 million copies, have grown up. The alt-rock world has devolved into a parody of sneering distortion-mongers and overweeningly sensitive males. And because Pearl Jam has been so scarce -- its test of wills with Ticketmaster limited the band to a handful of dates, most well outside urban centers, to promote its last two albums -- the quintet is in a kind of limbo.

"I think the pressure is finally off them," says longtime manager Kelly Curtis, who believes that Yield presents an opportunity for Pearl Jam to reposition itself. "They can go be a rock band, be pure about music. They're more concerned with playing now than fighting the system."

Hard-won wisdom

Still, the wisdom gleaned from fighting the good fight runs throughout Yield. Pearl Jam has transformed its frustrations of the last few years into elegant, rousing, thoughtful music. "No Way," penned by Gossard, is the collection's most overtly autobiographical statement, but other songs comment on the loss of innocence and the nature of trust, topics these five musicians thought a lot about as they sat on the sidelines. In one song, Vedder portrays exile as a journey inward, with lines such as "There's a lot to be said for nowhere." In another, he yearns to be a simple servant, the "pedal brake that you depend upon."

Throughout, there's a sense that this outfit, once hampered by its studied idealism, is ready to move on.

That's what Gossard wanted to convey in "No Way," he says. "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. . . . I think he gets off on not being responsible for it."

"My out is, 'Stone wrote it,' " Vedder says, chuckling. "The way I can sing it is changing his idea slightly, by saying 'I'll stop trying -- no way.' So it works from either perspective."

The very fact that others, not just Vedder, contributed complete songs as vital and imaginative as "No Way" is one explanation for the richness of Yield. In the past, the band worked up rhythm tracks, then left Vedder alone to craft the lyrics, an arrangement he preferred. But sometimes Vedder became overwhelmed, says Ament. 

"Ed's typically the guy who finishes off the songs, and that was working well enough," recalls the bassist. "But by the end of No Code, he was so burnt, it was so much work for him. I remember him saying it would be great if other people could come in with ideas. So we all went home and wrote a bunch of songs."

Ament remembers early rehearsals for Yield as somewhat "nerve-wracking," because, though they had written for their side projects, the band members had never shared lyrics with one another. "It's hard to approach Eddie and say, 'Uh, I've got these words' when he's such a master of words. But that moment in the studio where he was so receiving of what we were doing was a huge turning point. For him to feel these were good songs he wanted to sing really opened things up, made everybody energized about their place in the band."

Though he says that the songwriting input gives him more time to "make furniture," Vedder is hardly absent from Yield. Perhaps taking a cue from his less word-obsessed bandmates, he's written concise, penetratingly simple rock songs. One, "Wishlist," is an inventory of things Vedder wants to be -- "a radio song, the one that you turned up," "the full moon shining off a Camaro's hood" -- culled from a list of 120 or so extended metaphors he compiled.

Vedder mentions the thrashing, sarcastic "Do the Evolution," a riff on human arrogance, as one of his favorites: "That song is all about someone who's drunk with technology, who thinks they're the controlling living being on this planet. It's another one I'm not singing as myself."

He explains that the theme for the majestic "In Hiding" came after a four-day "speech fast" he did last year. "If you don't eat for a long time, food tastes better," Vedder says. "The song was about taking a fast from life, doing anything to get yourself back in touch with something real. Abstinence from anything is cool, because the normalcy of life is deceptive: It's enjoyable for a while, and there are good moments, but sometimes that's not enough. You start questioning what's the point. By not opening my mouth I was able to get into that state. Jack called me at the end of it; he couldn't understand what I was saying. It took a minute to get my speech back."

Then there's "Given to Fly," a soaring, U2-esque anthem about a human blessed with the ability to fly. The man returns to Earth to share "the key to the locks on the chains he saw everywhere," but is greeted with violence. He continues to try to give away what he's learned. 

Vedder imagined the song as a children's book, "a 20-page cardboard book with a line on each page and a picture to go with it. It's a fable, that's all. The music almost gives you this feeling of flight, and 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."

Which is, of course, exactly the kind of strategy Pearl Jam is employing this time around. Rather than fighting futile battles and standing on principle until the point is lost, it has chosen to yield, to move forward and offer something of value to what's left of its audience. It still wants to make a difference, but no longer needs to shout sanctimoniously from the rooftops. Its methods are more subtle, more humble. More grown-up.

"I think there have been times over the last five years when we all have wondered, individually and collectively, whether we were doing this for the right reasons," Gossard says. "It's like a young NBA rookie getting thrown into the fray, scrapping, making tons of mistakes, doing things the veterans didn't like. That was us. 

"In the long run, we stayed around. The mere fact that we survived made us stronger. We care for each other more, we trust more because we have had to, to endure. And, I think, maybe for the first time we're playing up to our potential."

 

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