Coming Off the Mountaintop

Instead Pearl Jam has adopted a jackhammer rhythm that makes it sound like a lawn mower caught on a testy patch of weeds. Vedder's wailing above this mess often comes across like a dog's bark -- quick, punctual, and struggling to be heard above the din.

Where Pearl Jam succeeds is with its Bic-lighter standards, the songs that sound best when there's a cheap bottle of wine in your system. Think "Black," off the debut, Ten; or "Indifference," from Vs.; or "Immortality," from Vitalogy -- songs that demand you sit in your room staring at candles, pondering the great depths of it all. Vedder will sing, "Cannot find the comfort in this world" or "I will hold the candle till it burns up my arm." While every sensible part of you wants to scream, "Enjoy the millions, Ed. They're yours. Take a cruise. Get some Prozac," another part thinks maybe he's onto something. It's the same goofy melodrama that made those old Doors albums such fun. Jim Morrison was never a poet, no matter what anyone says. But he was able to get weird and make stupid things seem significant. He risked making himself look like a fool so the rest of us could sit back and laugh. Vedder emulates ol' Jim. Again, it's that sacrificial lamb thing he just can't shake.

But Pearl Jam's bread and butter has always been the early hits -- "Alive," "Even Flow," "Jeremy," the tunes that brought the great fame and the tunes the band has been rebelling against ever since. The hits are what drove the band members to cut their hair, stop making videos, lay off touring, and concentrate on the insular detail of making records. Vedder may have Morrison's sense of martyrdom, but he refuses to take up Jimbo's sex-god status.

Obstinacy may be the only option for a smart guy in a postmodern world where every action and reaction has been labeled and filed even before it occurs. At least Pearl Jam has never gotten cheap and taken the easy way out. No, Vedder vents his passions, but it's up to the band to pull him back. No Code was interesting that way. Like a textbook the album attempted to educate anyone who dared enter its domain. The album may one day prove to be among the group's most satisfying, but initially it came off as dense and labored, words that also describe masterworks such as the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, or cluttered failures like Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, or nearly anything by Elvis Costello in the past ten years.

Yield, however, finds a stronger balance between intellectual restraint and the primal urge to beat the audience's head in. It bursts out of the gate with "Brain of J," a song with a strong descending guitar riff and just enough menace to blow the cobwebs off the stuffy art-rock self-indulgence of, say, Radiohead, a band that shares Pearl Jam's sober mantle but with far less panache. "Given to Fly" has a cinematic caress that scores a moody desert scene worthy of Paul Bowles' Tangier reveries. "Wishlist" is just the sort of muted tone poem that has replaced the anthems of yore. It threatens to detonate but then backs away from the confrontation.

Maturity has taught Pearl Jam it's best to walk away from a fight. The song "MFC" is multitextural and effective with its swirl of guitar tones. But tracks like "Low Light" and "In Hiding" hint at the journeyman rock these fellas face if they don't get their shit together. Don't believe me? Keep in mind Vedder's closest vocal antecedent is Iron Butterfly's Doug Ingle. "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" might have been a landmark of something or other, and it sold about a billion copies, but it didn't do much for the band's staying power.

Vedder and company may be struggling with whether it's better to burn out or rust, but their greatest danger might be neither. They may end up forever running in place.

Pearl Jam and opening act Rancid perform Tuesday, September 22, and Wednesday, September 23, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach, 800-759-4624. The show is sold out. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

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