Coming Off the Mountaintop

Pearl Jam's got it bad. Unquestionably the most interesting of the grunge bands to follow in Nirvana's wake, Pearl Jam has suffered at the hands of everyone. Even with all manner of concessions to the marketplace -- a video, a tour with the help of arch nemesis Ticketmaster, a solid rock album in Yield -- the band still can't find its way back to the head of the class. Attempts to create new musical space with Vitalogy (1994) and No Code (1996) resulted in sluggish sales and limited influence on the hard rock world the Seattle quintet once ruled. Like the cult bands Pearl Jam's members openly admire, the group has had to settle for the margin where rock's eccentrics are eventually maligned. A damn shame, since anyone with a brain can tell you that's precisely where rock moves ahead. For every easy-listening Eagles record that pacifies the masses, there's some washed-up wack-job uncovering a greater noise, whether it be Marvin Gaye following his luxurious soul visions into the land of the ultrapersonal or somebody like that dweeb Will Oldham who, alone or with his band Palace (or whatever he's calling it this week), goes deep into the crevices of weirdo folk art.

It's only fitting that Pearl Jam should take a seat among rock's underclass. Like Gaye, Eddie Vedder and company saw the mountaintop, tasted success at the highest altitude. But like others they feel most at home somewhere else. Yet Pearl Jam's ambitions never resembled those of the numerous indie bands it champions. The band has always come on far heavier, as if it were seeking Led Zeppelin territory. Sure, everyone's remarked how "Given to Fly," Yield's first single, resembles Zep's "Going to California." But the obvious tip-off aside, look how Pearl Jam has tried to channel its public image. Like Zeppelin its members wish to work far enough away from the pack so they stand clear of being lumped in with their peers. In Pearl Jam's case, that includes an endless array of grunge and alternative groups clogging up modern rock radio. That Pearl Jam's fans have been fickle and taken its refusal to work conventionally as a reason to move on to user-friendly groups is merely a statement about the overreach of music marketing and the disenchantment of today's rock fan. I've always figured 50,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong, but 50 million pretty much ensure that most of them don't know why they're clapping in the first place.

With Yield all the signs of rapprochement are there. The symbolism is unmissable, the lyrics an easy read. Guitarist Stone Gossard's "No Way" makes it plain: "Not trying to make a difference/Stop trying to make a difference." Ticketmaster? MTV? Oh well, whatever. As the band stood alone in its opposition, what was the point anyway? Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb, especially if all you get is crucified for having ideals in the first place?

Funny then to remember that, when Pearl Jam first burst on the scene, Kurt Cobain saw its members as careerists looking to piggyback on Nirvana's success and to sell out punk's "pure" vibe for major-label superstardom. That they looked like rock stars with all that pretty hair and chased after rock's anthemic power when other grunge bands were copping out and staring at their shoes apparently bothered Cobain. (What, may I ask, is wrong with wanting the music you love to be your life's work? Auto mechanics don't have this ontological struggle, do they?)

Anyhow, Pearl Jam cut its collective hair and Cobain made a few reconciliatory remarks, and before long Vedder and company were standing on the Saturday Night Live stage paying tribute to Cobain's ghost as they wove their way out of "Daughter" (off their second album, Vs.) and into a few bars of Neil Young's "Hey, Hey, My, My." Earlier that evening they'd previewed "Not For You," a song from the then-unreleased Vitalogy that moved with the punk spark of Cobain's roots. The choice was unusual in a time when bands behave as expected, playing the latest hit upfront rather than tempting the audience with something out of reach. For Pearl Jam it was simply another case of staying one step ahead, defying expectation and establishing independence.

But on that night everything you could love about high seriousness played itself out in devastating detail. As lead survivor Vedder has taken the mantle of seriousness to near-parodic proportions. (He's credited as "Ed" Vedder on Yield, leading one to wonder if "Edward" is the next step.) During the SNL performance, he was the wounded comrade burying his past, working through empathy and pain to find something deeper than the spectacle that had attracted everyone in the first place.

Vedder's sobriety has also been the best element on each of Pearl Jam's albums. Curiously the band has always lacked the basic rock function -- the ability to rock. The rhythm section sounds as if a big stick is stuck up its butt, making the group uptight, unable to loosen up and get funky -- or at least swing. And isn't it curious how every time Pearl Jam hires a new drummer you read how this time the chemistry is just right. It's like reading about a new Rolling Stones album: This is the one that will bring the group back to glory. Well, no matter; Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden, is in the chair at present, and though he may never teach anyone how to swing, he's damn solid and a pleasure to watch.

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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