It’s kind of amazing to think that the movie version of “Into the Wild” came out all the way back in 2007. It seems almost like yesterday. Time flies sometimes. But with the release of that Sean Penn-directed film came an interesting artifact in the form of Eddie Vedder’s first solo record. Of course whether or not it officially counts as a solo album is up for debate, primarily because he was asked to write songs specifically for the movie, which also meant a few incidental instrumentals. The subject matter of that record too was strongly nature-related, and a huge complaint was that the hippie “mother earth” vibes took away from what might otherwise have been good songs about other things. So there were a few issues with that soundtrack, but the one positive that came out of it was having Eddie Vedder really get away from the Pearl Jam mode he’s been in for so long and do something different by himself. He soon returned to that mode with Pearl Jam’s last record “Backspacer”, but while we wait for the next one, Ed Ved has decided to release a record of songs he recorded on the ukulele over the course of the last 10 years. Many of them are originals and a few are covers as well, and he’s got a couple friends like Glen Hansard of The Frames/Swell Season as well as Chan Marshall of Cat Power to help him out. First inspired by his hero Pete Townshend of The Who’s ukulele song “Blue Red and Grey”, the initial plan was just to mess around with the four stringed mini guitar. Starting with the song “Soon Forget” on Pearl Jam’s 2000 record “Binaural”, Vedder kept penning new songs over the years and finally decided to put them all out on a record he’s aptly titled “Ukulele Songs”.
Clocking in just short of 35 minutes, “Ukulele Songs” spans 16 tracks and features 5 covers. True to its title, every single song is performed on the ukulele and only the ukulele, with the exception of “Longing to Belong”, which also features a cello. The whole point is for the record to showcase a love affair with this singular instrument, and in that sense you might even consider this to be yet another fake out in terms of actual Eddie Vedder solo material. By restricting himself to this tiny guitar, we’re left deprived of what he might have been able to do and explore were unlimited resources at his disposal. Still, what this album really provides us with is a chance to alternately examine both Vedder’s voice and words. Here he’s no longer pounding us into the ground with nature imagery, but instead primarily taking on the role of a heartbroken man that simply yearns to be loved. The subject matter is vastly different from Pearl Jam material too, and that’s likely why he’s chosen to wear his heart on his sleeve when on his own. The thing is, with so little to sustain the material, listening to even a half hour of Vedder pouring his heart out can register as a tad boring and repetitive and even a little depressing. Spaced out into chunks though, the intimacy and the emotional heft are surprisingly inviting, like you’re having a one-on-one musical performance on the beach by the campfire.
The first quarter of the record starts with a redone version of the “Riot Act” song “Can’t Keep” that’s interesting to say the least. “Sleeping By Myself” and “Without You” are also two of the most fully realized cuts on this album, placing songcraft and emotion at the forefront where they need to be. A number of radio stations are playing “Longing to Belong” on the air as a single, and given the gorgeous nature of it as a mid-record gem that makes sense. Vedder’s duet with Glen Hansard courtesy of the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris classic “Sleepless Nights” also makes for one of the more standout moments on the album, as is his cover version of “Tonight You Belong to Me” done with Cat Power. You may remember that one from the comedy classic “The Jerk”, though the song had been recorded by a number of artists before that movie as well as after. The short, 90 second cover of the long-time staple “Dream A Little Dream” makes for a fine album closer, even if Vedder sounds just a little bored with it vocally.
While “Ukulele Songs” is nice in how it allows us to hear a different side of Eddie Vedder, the fundamental issue is whether or not we were looking to discover this new perspective. See, not every revelation is a good one, and in the case of this album of primarily hurt and wounded songs makes a hardened rock star seem soft and sensitive. Some might like that look on him, but others hoping for the same sort of Vedder we’ve all come to know and love will be sorely disappointed. Throw in that limited range ukulele and it makes the record that much more of a challenge to enjoy. Still, there are pleasant moments, along with a handful of tracks that if placed together would have made for a great EP. Let’s hold out hope that if Vedder does choose to try another “solo” album, he does it properly next time with a bunch more instruments and songs that express a wider range of emotions than what we’re handed here.