I’m still here. I’m not quite finding my blogging mojo for reasons various but, hey, if there was anything that was gonna stir the juices a bit it was gonna be Pearl Jam related, right? And a solo album from Eddie Vedder that’s neither a soundtrack or sixteen ukulele tunes was always gonna be worth investigating.
First things first – it’s a manage expectations job. It’s not 1994 anymore and those expecting a Vedder solo album to be something that would represent the singer of ‘Not For You’, say, are living in the past with Walter Sobchack, man. I’ll admit I kind held a smidge of a hope for it though. See, while there are three decades of beautiful tradition, 2022’s Eddie Vedder is a different man. Let’s face it: it’s unlikely that he would have made an album of ukulele songs or caught the same wave that inspired Into The Wild straight after writing ‘Leash’. But, as Pearl Jam’s albums in the decades that followed that last great gasp for music have shown, Vedder remains a crafter of fine lyrics and tunes – as exemplified on 2020’s unexpectedly* strong Gigaton – as he matures.
Hearing the manner he’s been able to bring that sense of inner peace while still screaming at external torments – be they political or global – has made for many of Pearl Jam’s finer moments of the last couple of decades. For a band that’s often demonstrated that the sum is greater than the value of its parts, the real question was whether this would work outside of Pearl Jam on a more traditional (read: with full band backing not just four strings) solo album?
First impressions via lead-off single ‘The Long Way’ were promising – nice melody, lot of Tom Petty vibes while sounding like Eddie having fun without trying to sound like Pearl Jam. It even features Benmont Tench on the hammond organ, the first time the Heartbreaker had taken his equipment out of storage for use since the last Heartbreakers’ tour.
Then my anticipation stalled upon hearing ‘The Haves.’ In fact, it fell asleep. It’s a song with a good lyric but it’s straight-forward tack and lack of hook make the five minute run time feel four times as long. It’s not until the last minute or so that Vedder really seems to get into it from a vocal point. ‘Brother the Cloud’ however sent me to the ‘pre-order’ button**: it’s a fine tune that leans into the Pearl Jam sound without feeling like it’s trying to imitate and an inspired lyric from Vedder that’s seemingly about the passing of two people both called Chris:
Oddly for a solo album, there’s not a single Vedder / Vedder credit – all songs apparently born out of jam sessions with a band made up of Josh Klinghoffer, Chad Smith and Andrew Watt (who also produced) with Vedder smashing lyrics out at a clip that he hadn’t for some time. It means that these songs feel airier and have a spring in their step that speak of the speed at which the project came together and reached our ears. It also feels like Vedder had a real blast making this album. There’s no real head-on tackling of weighty issues and Vedder paints with the brighter, more vibrant rock colours that Pearl Jam typically avoids.
Sometimes this works really well – the previously mentioned ‘Long Way’ and ‘Brother the Cloud’ along with ‘Fallout Today’ and opener ‘Invincible’ shine as initial highlights: there’s a looseness and willingness to play about the music, ‘Fallout Today’ adds another entry into Vedder’s strong-women narratives and the multi-tracking of Vedder’s voice in ‘Invincible’ makes a great entry point for the album. According to a recent chat between Vedder and Springsteen it was the first music written and the last lyric completed:
This looser spontaneity gives Earthing a feel of an Eddie Vedder & Friends Rave Up. Despite the co-write credits, it’s clearly Eddie’s show throughout, though. While the ‘Earthlings’ are made up of big-name players they never contribute anything musically that would make you say, for example, ‘man, Chad’s such an awesome drummer, that fill made me need new undies’. It’s a feeling that’s borne out by the choice of guests on the album’s last volley of tunes too. Vedder has said that he approached the tracklist as he would a concert; toward the end you get a little more relaxed and bring out the guests. Much in in the same way as nobody has walked away from a Pearl Jam show saying “fuck, that dude from The Buzzcocks really added to ‘Rockin’ In the Free World’ tonight” nobody could say that the worst Beatle brings anything other than his name to ‘Mrs Mills’. If we’re keeping the same metaphor you’d guess Elton John was hanging around side stage and dragged on to trade vocals with Eddie on ‘Picture’ but managed to sound more like a South Park parody of himself with a song that feels like it should be accompanying some animated film about two animal friends. The real highlight in terms of guests is the fittingly all-too-brief moment in which Vedder accompanies his father on the closing ‘On My Way’:
For those familiar with the history of Vedder’s discovery that the guy he’d thought was his father ‘was nothing but a…’ that fuelled a large part of his and Pearl Jam’s initial angst, it feels like a fittingly emotional way for Vedder to end this album. Putting to bed some of his troubles on an album where he seems to be having more fun than he’s had on record in a long time.
Much like you’d expect from an ‘Eddie Vedder & Friends’ show, Earthling is a lot of fun and at times a damn fine listen. Those moments when Vedder is on form and giving it his all are great. Even when he’s leaning back and his forays into different styles don’t always land – his inherent abilities and unmistakable voice (though the effects of smoking on his voice prevent him breathing as much into a lyric as he once did) mean that even the lesser of these songs still offer a reason to tune in.
But – Elton John aside – what stops Earthling being brilliant is the sound and production, which fails on at least three tracks. It’s flat, sonically, where it could be really interesting – it’s all volume and no nuance or texture and feels out of place. It all sits on the shoulders of ‘super-producer’ Andrew Watt who, despite his fan status, is better known for his work with the likes of, ahem, Justin Bieber, Post Malone, 5 Seconds of Summer and Miley Cyrus. I’m all for experimenting with new producers; Brendan O’ Brien was hardly an established name when Pearl Jam started working with him and the sonic experiments of Binaural, Riot Act and Gigaton yielded glorious results. However, Watt’s approach of pushing everything up loud drowns songs like ‘Rose of Jericho’ and ‘Good and Evil’ when a little nuance and texture could’ve bought them to life, meanwhile the over-processed sound of ‘The Dark’ would be more at home on a song from some X-Factor pop-puppets or John Shanks produced Bon Jovi record (THE HORROR!). It made me want to go back and listen to Gigaton (no bad thing) and hope that the mutterings that Watt will produce the next Pearl Jam album amount to so much promo-cycle air.
How-fucking-ever: the diversity and full-bodied nature of its highlights make Earthling the better of his solo albums. While it’s not the Eddie Vedder solo album we may have expected, in many ways it does a more than admirable job of straddling both the range of his musical lexicon and tastes past and present in a way that his single-theme solo efforts to date failed to do. It captures a once angry young man comfortable in middle-age and having a great time some thirty years down the line from his grimace appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Given how many of his contemporaries are listed as casualties of the ‘scene’ we should be happy that Vedder is both here and that the easy, Eddie-having-fun vibe that fact brings still makes for a blast on repeated – albeit five songs lighter than intended – listens.
*Backspacer and Lightning Bolt had their moments but Gigaton found Pearl Jam embracing a new producer and sounding tighter than a duck’s arse.
**On cd this time as vinyl production is still feeling the impact of supply chain issues coupled with the the unholy revival of a Swedish crap heap and an equally awful album of ‘heartbreak’ karaoke fodder.