Eddie Vedder has always been a better star than artist. He's best at grand gestures, belting out "Alive" or vowing to bring a concert-ticket monopoly to its knees. But these days, "Ed" (as he now calls himself) seems desperate to prove he's just a guy. In public, it never quite works, because he's only seen in the company of other stars--Pete Townshend, Michael Stipe, Mick Jagger. But on Yield, the most audacious gesture doesn't belong to Vedder at all, but rather guitarist Mike McCready, who swipes the melody of Led Zep's "Going to California" for the first single, "Given to Fly." Thieves themselves, I hope Page and Plant are too proud to sue.
Anyone looking for a return to rock-god form won't find much else to cheer on Yield. The ballads are fine, some of Pearl Jam's best, but the rockers are deliberately modest--either sloppy, as on the album-opening "Brain of J" (as in FK); or leaden, as on "No Way," a mid-tempo stomp that sounds like the band's former peers in the now-defunct Soundgarden. "Stop trying to make a difference, not trying to make a difference...no way," Vedder sings on the latter, and it's hard to say whether he's genuinely defiant or simply bitter about being roasted for his messianic zeal. Given that it was written by Stone Gossard, rumored to be less committed than Vedder to the band's anti-Ticketmaster crusade, it may be both.
Ed and the boys do sound like they're having fun on "Do the Evolution," a thrashy raveup that could pass for early Pere Ubu, but it's a goof, almost as much a throwaway as the 67 seconds of "*" or "Push Me Pull Me," a noisy sound collage distinctive only for its Who-like harmonies. When reaching for sweeping rock-anthem choruses, Yield offers bland reassurance ("Faithfull") or confusing mush ("Pilate").
Perhaps the wider world has grown so confusing for Pearl Jam that the group no longer knows what to make of it. This is a band that's sacrificed about $20 million in tour receipts, and its members still get criticized for acting too much like rock stars. How many abortive tours or years between videos will it take to prove otherwise? Or maybe this will be the year they finally surrender to Ticketmaster and other rock-royalty temptations. In the meantime, Yield's most satisfying moments are its most personal: the lovely lilt of "Low Light," the near-regret of "All Those Yesterdays," and especially "Wishlist," in which Vedder yearns for all the things he can never be, including a neutron bomb and the key chain of a loved one. Ain't that just like Eddie/Ed: He can't decide whether he wants to blow up the outside world or simply disappear from view.