By now, it should be obvious to the most time-warped, flannel-clad, headphone-wearing bookstore clerk. With Nirvana and Soundgarden gone, Courtney Love prancing about in designer gowns, and both Foo Fighter Dave Grohl and ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson working with — or for — rap baron Puffy Combs, the fabled ’90s alt-rock revolution is over, and pop artifice has emerged victorious. Yeah, there are still pockets of resistance (onetime contenders Mudhoney, God bless ‘em, soldier haplessly on), but the cold wind blowing through the Seattle rock community is being felt throughout the industry, and record labels are eyeing contract-seeking, angsty guitar boys with as much relish as they would a horde of crack-addicted doo-wop revivalists. As Frank Zappa once almost said, grunge isn’t dead, it just smells bad.
Which brings us to Pearl Jam, the biggest and, in many ways, most problematic band to survive the grunge purge. Disdained by the late Kurt Cobain and long held at arm’s length by the indie/alt cognoscenti, Pearl Jam nonetheless became the flagship band for disaffected youth, cobbling together a bemusingly non-threatening blend of self-righteous bluster and glib riffology that often seemed more a bloodless facsimile of rock than a leap into the music’s roiling viscera. (The most striking aspect of Mirror Ball, the band’s 1995 collaboration with Neil Young, was how much Pearl Jam sounded like studio pros gamely replicating the slapdash synchronicity of Young and Crazy Horse.) And despite Eddie Vedder’s oft-cited idealism and passion, he mostly comes off as a postmod Jim Morrison, sans danger.
It would have been a tragicomic coda to the sad saga of ’90s guitar rock had Pearl Jam decided to dabble in electronica or add dance beats to Yield, the follow-up to 1996’s No Code. Thankfully, they’ve resisted such loony impulses, turning in an intermittently affecting album that veers between fiery garage rock and rootsy, acoustic-based ruminations. Perhaps mindful of their position as the last alt-rock ambassadors with any degree of clout, they’ve come up with their most cohesive album since their 1991 debut, Ten.
While there are plenty of Vedder’s trademark ineffable proclamations on life’s great issues scattered throughout Yield, the overall tone is less pretentious than in the past, reflecting a looser, even marginally whimsical, worldview. On the album’s most gleeful hip shaker, “Do the Evolution,” Vedder howls throwaway lyrics (“I’m a thief/I’m a liar/There’s my church, I sing in the choir”) while the guitars gnash and grind at the primitive melody, briefly evoking the gnarly cacophony of the Stooges’ monumental Fun House. Elsewhere, the band proves it can still come up with radio-ready anthems — “Faithful” and “MFC” in particular seem predestined for heavy rotation. And, in what’s either a bizarre homage to their roots or a genuine act of unconscious plagiarism, the group offers a thinly veiled rewrite of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” — called “Given to Fly” here — that may be of interest to Jimmy Page’s attorneys, particularly since it’s Yield’s first single. (Makes you wish they’d gone whole hog and retooled “Whole Lotta Love,” though.)
Yet such apparent pilferage seems apt: In a very real sense, Pearl Jam are now a classic-rock act. Having survived the end of one era, these fellas have no intention of either burning out or fading away. They’d rather be Led Zeppelin — a bold decision for a band forged in a scene predicated on the beautiful-loser ethos. Better yet, they’ve embraced real rock-god arrogance. It was easy enough to scoff at Vedder’s erstwhile I’m-a-superstar-feel-my-pain persona, but when he sings “I’ve stopped trying to make a difference” in “No Way,” it feels more like satori than self-pity. Journeymen now, Pearl Jam are free to try out new roles, cop unpopular attitudes, even cozy up to their corporate paymasters (word is that the group may even — gasp! — make a video to promote Yield). Like the Rolling Stones (another band of successful careerists that Pearl Jam played four dates with last fall), Vedder & Co. are wearing their stardom like a loose garment. Let’s face it: Once you hit 30, those hair shirts start to really itch, man. B