Pearl Jam – “No way”: Critical analysis of production elements and the emotional impact of musical performance and sonic attributes

This song was performed by Pearl Jam (Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jack Irons) on their 5th studio release “Yield” in 1998. The album was produced by Brendan O’Brien (with Pearl Jam), mixed by Brendan O’Brien (Nick DiDia on “Push Me Pull Me”), and engineered by Nick DiDia/Matt Bayles/Sam Hofstedt/Ryan Williams.

This is my first attempt at analyzing the multiple aspects that make us connect emotionally to a certain song in the Alternative genre. By understanding the important elements of these highly valued performances and their emotional impact on us as listeners, we might learn what it takes to make a truly valuable musical piece.

I highly recommend reading this article while listening to your copy of the song, then watching the video on the bottom where I play the bass part with ultimate attention to the nuances of timing, articulation and dynamics in Jeff Ament’s performance.

Critical analysis was performed using Ultimate Ears reference custom in-ear monitors.

Intro (4 bars)

The song starts with the left guitar (played on the 4th beat) followed by the right guitar (played on the 2nd eighth of the 4th beat). They sound very mid-range oriented, as if a wah pedal was engaged and left on a pretty low frequency setting. They are played a little behind the-hi hat. The hi-hat is playing a sixteenth note pattern which accents the second and fourth up beats by opening the hi-hat pedal, while on the downbeats 1 and 3 the hi-hats are almost completely closed. This creates a very interesting movement and groove. They also seem to be played a little ahead of the other instruments, what adds to the drive of the song.

First verse (16 bars):

“Here’s a token of my openness
Of my need to not disappear
How I’m feeling, so revealing to me
I found my mind too clear
I just need someone to be there for.. me
I just want someone to be there for.. me”

When the vocals enter, there is a single guitar note fading in and out on the right side. Later in the verse this sound is coming back, playing a new part.

The Vocals are relatively dry, panned center. There might be a little reverb on it but it is masked by the other reverbs and instruments which make it seem closer to the listener than the other instruments. They sound heavily compressed, which adds to their close and intimate feel.

Drum sound:

The kick sounds dark and boomy, with a long ring and good punch but not a lot of attack. It is panned center.

The snare is played with rim-shot, it sounds dark with good attack and good body and is panned center. It appears to have less ringing than the kick.

The Hi-hat sounds dark with good body and almost no sizzle. It is panned center.

The toms have lots of attack and full tone, but not a lot of low end. They seem to be all panned towards the left.

The crash cymbal sounds a little brighter than the hi-hat and appears towards the left.

The whole kit seems to be recorded in a very naturally reverberated live room, possibly with more reverb added to the whole kit (including kick drum and hi hat) in the mixing stage. This makes them sound a little further away than the guitars and vocals, in their own space. The reverb (or room microphone signal) appears to be mono and centered, which clears the sides for the guitars.

Second verse (16 bars):

“All the static in my attic-a
Shoots down my sciatic nerve
To the ocean of my platitudes
Longitudes, latitudes, it’s so absurd
I just need someone to be there for..
I just want someone to be there for..
Someone to be there for..”

The bass guitar enters with a downward glissando, along with a snare and tom fill. It sounds dark and relatively undefined with a good low mid growl. Appears to be mixed a little further away and tucked in the mix, with the kick drum a little in front of it.

Also introduced on the second verse is a tambourine played on the fourth beat of each bar. This tambourine is panned to the left side, about where the crash is panned, but is sent to a relatively long reverb with a very short pre delay which is panned to the right. The reverb seems to be as loud as or even louder than the tambourine itself.

The long sustained guitar notes on the right keep appearing, supporting the whole tense mood.

On the second half of the verse this guitar starts playing a new part on top. This part seems to also have an octave below effect or simply the same part played an octave below.

On the same spot there is another guitar part on the left side that consists of muted rhythmic strums with a wah pedal.

The drums are playing the same pattern but with eighth notes on the ride, which appears off center to the left.

First chorus (8 bars):

“‘Cause I’ll stop trying to make a difference
I’m not trying to make a difference
I’ll stop trying to make a difference
No way”

The harmonic changes stay the same, as well as the first guitars that were introduced in the intro, while the new melody of the chorus is introduced. The drums keep playing the same part from the second half of the verse but with more attitude and drive. The tambourine starts playing sixteenth notes. The guitar on the right starts playing a new part with anger and attitude. At the same time there is another vocal part, sung an octave below the lead vocal part, and is panned a little off center to the right. One more thing that is happening, is that there is a crash hit on the 4th beat of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th measure, as well as on the 6th, 7th, and 8th measure of the chorus.

The bridge (8 bars):

“Ooh, let’s call in an angel”

The snare drum gets relatively louder in the mix (starting on the last beat of the chorus), either as a result of raising a fader or adding another layer of the snare sound on top of it. A new harmonic change and new main guitar (and bass) part is introduced. The drums keep playing the same part, as well as the tambourine. A shaker or similar instrument playing sixteenth notes is introduced and panned to the right, opposite to the tambourine.

The lead vocals are now panned to the left. Supporting the lead vocals is another vocal part that’s singing the melody an octave above the lead vocals and is panned a little off center to the left. On the extreme left, a new roaring guitar part is added. On the second half of the bridge there is a new guitar part, which consists of single high note bends played on quarter notes. This part is faded in and each consecutive quarter note is panned to the left and then to the right.

Instrumental (10 bars):

All instruments play a full 2 bar note, while a new guitar part is introduced on the left side. The drums then enter again for two more bars, while the two guitars are playing feedback sounds.

The drums stop again and the left guitar is playing the part with a deeper attitude and extreme expression on the wah pedal. On the two first notes of the measure there seems to be another guitar on top.

The feedback guitars on the right are getting louder, as the bass is playing a pentatonic phrase with a somewhat “quirky” timing.

There is a very far away shouting of the lead vocalist. I assume it wasn’t on the song but was part of this specific performance of the song. A huge snare hit is following, sounds like a gunshot, with a lot of reverb added.

A dry un-reverberated drum part is then played for two measures. This part has no kick drum and the snare sounds filtered in the low end. It sounds small and far.

The pentatonic bass part is raised gradually in level, building up to the drum fill, which sounds big and full compared to the dry and small 2 measure part that was played before, kicking ahead to the final chorus.

Final chorus (16 bars):

“‘Cause I’ll stop trying to make a difference
I’m not trying to make a difference
I’ll stop trying to make a difference
No way
‘Cause I’ll stop trying to make a difference
I’m not trying to make a difference
I’ll stop trying to make a difference
No way
No way, no way
Let’s call in an angel
Who’s calling an angel? “

All instruments play with more attitude, guitar fills on the right, down slide guitar on the left, tambourine and shaker playing sixteenth notes, and the drums are playing 8th notes on the ride, with crash hits all over. The song then fades out.

Feel free to let me know what you think, and if you liked it, don’t hesitate to share…

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