Album Review: Eddie Vedder - 'Earthling'
For the first time in more than a decade, Eddie Vedder has ventured out on a solo project outside of Pearl Jam, and it’s resulted in some of the most inspired music he has produced in years.
“Earthling,” Vedder’s third solo studio album, blends a variety of musical styles spanning across the rock spectrum and includes music icons Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ringo Starr as collaborators.
After producing the soundtrack for the film “Into the Wild” in 2007 and stretching the dynamic of his abilities in 2011 with “Ukulele Songs,” an appropriately titled collection of original songs and covers performed entirely on a ukulele, Vedder presents a record that returns to familiar territory.
Following the two solo releases, Pearl Jam released the studio LPs “Lightning Bolt” in 2013 and “Gigaton” in 2020, with various live albums scattered between. Both “Gigaton” and “Lightning Bolt” received moderately mixed reviews.
Picking up slack where it was dropped before, hard-driving anthems paired with slow, meandering reflections compose the 13 tracks on “Earthling,” extending to a runtime of approximately 48 minutes.
The album was produced by Andrew Watt, who plays bass guitar on the record and also worked with Vedder and John on “The Lockdown Sessions,” John’s massive collaboration album with superstars across the musical plane during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Invincible” kicks off “Earthling” with an ethereal-sounding introduction before transitioning to a grandiose mainstream rock anthem. Although a grand welcome, its stylization is misleading as to what the rest of the record holds, while the theme falls in line with the accompanying topics of love and loss.
“Power of Right” serves as a harsh contrast to the opener, channeling some of the aggression from Pearl Jam’s “Ten” or “Vs.” albums with a gritty, overdriven guitar riff in the verses and a driving snare on every downbeat in the choruses, accompanied by an infectious clap rhythm.
“Long Way” follows and lends itself to elements of Americana rock rather than garage rock. An easy, laid-back listen, Vedder invokes the open road, a common fixture of the nostalgic and rural qualities of the genre he’s lending the song to, and sings in the chorus, “He took the long way / On the freeway.”
“Brother the Cloud” is one of the highlights of the entire album and outshines other tracks both musically and thematically. Unlike other songs on “Earthling,” Vedder pours as much heart and soul into the performance while he tells the story of a brother who has seemingly passed away. There is speculation on whether the song is about his biological brother, who was killed in a climbing accident, or Vedder’s close friend Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden, who committed suicide in 2017.
Regardless, Vedder is able to combine sadness and anger in a coherent way that illustrates the pain and anguish of his loss, as he laments, “If I could wish, wish it away / I would bleed out my knees and pray / If I could give, all that I have / To bring him back today.”
“Fallout Today” slows the pace down again with another pleasing soft rock track dominated by 12-string guitars until an electric guitar solo that sounds slightly inspired by Foghat. The song advances the ongoing themes of pain and sharing grief with others to make it more bearable.
“The Dark” is one of the weaker entries on the album, maintaining a consistent driving beat that sounds reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Unfortunately, the song maintains a single dynamic and intensity during the runtime and does little to change it, creating a track with little room to grow or explore musically.
Vedder’s strongest vocal performance on the record comes on “The Haves,” as his falsetto makes an appearance near the end of choruses and his baritone intertwines with the sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment, smooth bass and soft drumbeat. Although famous for a raspy, grungy growl, Vedder puts the fullest extent of his talent on display with a clean and controlled vocal showing as he laments the human condition of reaching for what is unattainable.
“Good and Evil,” almost on cue, taps into Pearl Jam’s early-‘90s aesthetic, and the beauty of Vedder’s voice from the previous track transforms into the harsh aggression that can be found in tracks like “State of Love and Trust.” The next song, “Rose of Jericho,” continues with the same qualities but leans more heavily into a modern alt-rock sound. “Try,” featuring Stevie Wonder, does not have the harsh grit of the two preceding tracks, but does still lend itself mostly to a punk rock sound as the snare hits on upbeats.
“Picture” features Elton John and resembles the Rocketman’s piano rock more than Vedder’s brand of alternative rock, returning the favor for John’s “The Lockdown Sessions” track, which sounded like a Pearl Jam derivative. Despite the vast amount of star potential, the song toes the line of sounding campy due to the jaunt John brings, but there are some enjoyable moments along the way. Out of all the tracks on “Earthling,” this would likely be the one to lose its luster the quickest.
“Mrs. Mills” features Ringo Starr on drums and is second only to “Brother the Cloud” for the depth of the story it is telling. With a double entendre steeped into the lyrics, the song is intended to be a nod to the ‘60s British musician Gladys Mills and her famous piano, which was utilized on numerous Beatles recordings. However, the song could just as easily be referring to a woman and her entrancing hold on the local men. A beautiful piano opening, rock steady drums, and a regal horn scattered throughout and rising to prominence at the close defines the track and raises it to the top of the whole album.
“On My Way” is under two minutes and closes “Earthling” much the same way as it began: ethereal and flowing. Vedder’s opening vocals edge in the direction of Frank Sinatra with a grand “I’ll be on my way!” to launch the rest of the track with its waltz-like shuffle.
“Brother the Cloud,” “The Haves” and “Mrs. Mills” are the three strongest tracks on the record with no contest, with “Mills” having the potential to become a strong hit had it been released as a single. They represent the best mixture of the ‘90s grungy punk rock and modern alternative that a rock icon could produce that remains true to the past while looking forward to the future.
“On My Way,” “The Dark” and “Picture” are the three weakest songs, settling into a comfortable space and not offering much for the record that is not said better elsewhere or detracting from the energetic flow of the other tracks.
“Earthling” does not always hit every mark it attempts to, but Vedder at least makes the effort to try new things and experiment, which is more than others may do at this stage of his career. As a reward for his effort, there are truly some gems and special moments tucked away inside.