Sunday, February 20, 2022

Eddie Vedder's Solo Work (2020-2022) / The Matter of Time EP

Credit: Danny Clinch

In Song of Myself, 51, Walt Whitman writes “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” As an artist, Eddie Vedder’s identity has been irrevocably chained to Pearl Jam, and the idea of Eddie Vedder that fronts them. Earnest, empathic, creator of large, serious, sweeping statements, deadly serious in intent. Authentic, as well. The private man who finds a way to create intimate connections in huge moments, who annihilates barriers between performer and audience, musician and listener.

All of this is part of who Eddie Vedder is. But it’s not the entirety of who he is, and fans who have followed Eddie for year have caught glimpses of that other Eddie. The wry humor that comes forward in his interviews. His own gushing fandom of artists great and small (and his refusal to draw that distinction). An encyclopedic knowledge of music history that enables Pearl Jam to cover almost any band on that band’s terms, and a vast array of heroes and influences not regularly centered in his Pearl Jam writing (which pulls pretty consistently from your Neil Youngs, Bruce Springsteens, The Whos, and The Ramones, but leaves the rest out). Eddie Vedder the band leader who loves nothing more than to spend an evening drinking and laughing and playing music with his friends, whether it is the musicians on stage or the people in the audience singing along. His humility and gratitude for being able to live the life he has been blessed with as opposed to the man who spent five very years publicly grappling with and disavowing it. There is an expectation that Eddie Vedder, and Pearl Jam, be the same people in 2022 that they were in 1995, almost 30 years ago. Eddie Vedder contains multitudes, while public perception of who he is denies him the gift of contradiction.

Even in his solo work he has largely refused to step too far away from the image of Eddie Vedder. That doesn’t make him inauthentic, as that image is absolutely a part of that larger multitude. Maybe even the most important part. But not the only part. Maybe the nature of those projects denied him the chance to give space to the elements stifled by the ideal of Pearl Jam. Into the Wild (2007) allowed him to play more instruments, but the themes were familiar and the subject matter was defined by the source material (though his choice of obscure covers spoke to the breadth of his musical fandom). Great performances, and they showed some growth as a musician and guitar player. But not surprising. We didn’t learn anything new from them.

Credit: Danny Clinch

Ukulele Songs (2011) could have offered more, given the artistic constraints imposed by the range of the instrument, and its simplicity. But the album felt more like an exercise in songwriting, rather than an exploration. How to write the same kind of songs that might be written on a six string guitar on a four string ukulele. It produced a few gems, but just like Into the Wild sounded exactly like the kind of music Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder would write under those specific circumstances, Ukulele songs still felt like classic Eddie Vedder on ukulele.

Pearl Jam’s masterful 2020 album, Gigaton, was one of their most sonically diverse albums in years. Arguably ever. And one of its most exciting things about Dance of the Clairvoyants, its most exciting song, is the glimpse it offered into the other kind of music Pearl Jam could produce, if they stopped being so concerned about sounding like Pearl Jam and allowed themselves to fully embrace the wider multitude of influences and instincts that have always been bubbling under the surface, artificially constrained.

Recently, Eddie has talked a fair bit about the influence of parenthood on his identify as a musician. And perhaps it manifests most clearly around time. Some of this is time as space – the challenge of physically carving out moments to play and create. If you take your family seriously, he argues, the spaces are brief and hurried, and there is a need to work fast and not be too precious about what is created. There’s time for spontaneity, but not editing and reflection. It can give the work almost a demo like quality, and it is hard to escape the sense on some songs he has written over the past 15 years or so that there was room for a second pass to make a composition more subtle or sophisticated, to make a moment more impactful.

But this also manifests itself in lyrical content and performance. The Eddie Vedder we met through his music spent his early years desperately searching for answers and meaning – convinced that they were out there, just out of reach. The yearning was palpable, but so too was the commitment to keep looking, to keep pushing, knowing that if you do so long enough, you’ll find it.

That idea evolved over time, as any idea should, especially one so bound up in one person’s lived experience. And it gradually crystalized around love as our principal source of meaning. Not necessarily romantic love. Familial love. Love for community. Love of music. Love in friendship. And a general love and affection for a world that makes these things possible. Heartbreak and pain finds its origins in the denial of these experiences. The frustration and anger directed towards people, ideas, institutions, and structures of personal and political power that stripped the capacity and opportunity for love from others. The need for self-reflection and safe spaces to allow for people to forgive themselves and others so that they could be ready to both give and receive love.

And so it’s not at all surprising, in retrospect, that upon finding these things Eddie’s writing starts to concern itself with questions of legacy and aftermath. What am I/What are we doing, as an outgoing generation (and at this point in his career Eddie has fully embraced his role as a rock and roll elder statesman, and mentor even if he does so with characteristic humility) to leave a world where the people following don’t have to struggle the way that I did? What do I owe the people who come next? What do I need to do to clear a path for them? Am I the person to guide them?

This shift has influenced his writing in other ways as well, perhaps less subtlety. When one finds themselves at the end of their own journey, confident in who they are, it is easier to abandon pretense, to care less about what people think of you, to posture less and play more. To live in each moment as you want to live in it, since the timeline of your history runs longer than your future. To honor and recognize and celebrate all the parts of yourself that lead to this moment, safe in the realization that you arrived at your destination, liking the person you became along the journey and understanding it was the sum total of all of your experiences that got you there. That makes this an opportune time to begin embracing elements that you might have one shied away from.

And, not surprisingly for someone who spent a career looking for and singing about love, even though he rarely used the word, we should expect to find a bit more saccharine, a bit more schmaltz, making their way into some of the work. And this is not a bad thing, especially when it is earned. The experience of love is a wet, syrupy, warm, sweet, cozy, enveloping feeling – but also much harder to capture. It may be less moving than pain, which for whatever reason it easier to project yourself into – to imagine someone else’s pain rather than their joy. Part of it is that love is based on concrete tangible connections, and loss and pain is defined by an absence – it is easier to settle into a vacant space than a crowded one, easier to make that experience your own and fill it with your own story, rather than adapt the highly specific particulars of someone else’s connections. And as Eddie’s writing more frequently lingers in these loving spaces it poses new challenges on him as an artist to make that space accessible (which is harder to do) and perhaps poses challenges for fans who have historically enjoyed having his company in their own vacant spaces, or a guide on their journey, but are less interested in the destination.

Thanks to COVID, we never got that Gigaton tour, or the solo tours that happened without pretense or obligation to showcase new music. And one presumes Pearl Jam was reluctant to start working on a new album before they had a chance to play the current one. So for the first time in a decade, Eddie leaned into being an artist independent of Pearl Jam, with a level of productivity we haven’t seen since the early years of the band where two years between albums felt like an eternity. In the last 14 months Eddie released the solo EP Matter of Time (December 2020), a second soundtrack Flag Day (August 2021), and his first full fledged solo record Earthling (February 2021). And together they offer us an unprecedented opportunity to explore who Eddie Vedder is outside of Pearl Jam and who he is today when he is answerable to a different set of instincts and obligations, when we are offered a vision of his contradictions and multitudes.


Released in December 2020 to very little fanfare, Matter of Time is technically an EP. However as four of the six songs are covers, and three of those four songs are acoustic covers of existing Pearl Jam material, and two of those three acoustic solo covers are of already acoustic d numbers, it’s easy to see why this didn’t make a huge splash. It is likely a product of that parent creativity trap Eddie had discussed elsewhere – trying to create when and how he can in the brief windows available. It may have also been motivated more by the desire to help rather than a burning need to say something, as the two original songs (Matter of Time and Say Hi) were part of a livestream to raise money to benefit a non-profit group (founded by Eddie and his wife Jill) that does EB (Epidermoysis bullosa) research. It is a rare, sometimes fatal disease that causes skin to take on a paper-thin texture and blister/bleed easily. Human contact is difficult. It’s a great cause, but the final EP ultimately ends up feeling a little incomplete and inessential, though the DNA of something more meaningful is certainly present.

Matter of Time: Matter of Time showcases some simple piano instrumentation to accompany Eddie’s vocal, vaguely reminiscent of REM’s Nightswimming (though Nightswimming is a masterpiece). I believe this is Eddie’s only song written/performed entirely on piano (we have a few unreleased organ solo tracks). The music creates a sense of distance that calls for something to bridge it, and it is appropriate for a song about a disease that makes human contact painful, and sometimes impossible. It’s a condition whose tragedy would absolutely speak to Eddie, and its clear in his performance. Simply reading up on the disease undoubtedly enhances the song.

There are some nice lyrical moments in here especially those that directly references the reality of the disease, and its imposition of physical barriers that can only be torn down emotionally. The title and chorus speak of time, and the hope that eventually there will be a cure. The repetition of a ‘matter of time’ doesn’t quite land with the impact you’d want it to have (which is a performance issue, there isn’t anything striking in the melody or delivery) but there are some great moments in the verses. Knowing that he is singing about a disease that can kill children, lyrics like “when your time is limited nothing happens too soon” hit hard. But the most powerful imagery focuses on hands, and the impossibility of direct physical connections that we take for granted.

“Still times when nothing’s alright as we bandage up all our parts”
“So much space between us in the distance of our hands”
“Shrink the space between us/A reaching of a hand”

It builds into a pretty bridge and layered vocals in the outro that try to create a sense of community, where Eddie looks to embody the earlier claim to “be a builder of bridges.” They don’t quite pay off on the promise. The sadness that drenches the rest of the song doesn’t quite go away, which mutes the emotional impact, and there also isn’t a memorable lyrical sequence to hold onto. The intent is clear, but it still feels like an idea is being worked out, something that does appear in Eddie’s writing on occasion, when he believes something so strongly and passionately that he doesn’t always bridge the distance between what he experiences in his heart and what other people need to know and understand to feel the same way. It’s too bad. This is something Eddie/Pearl Jam have done exceedingly well on other songs (River Cross is a great recent example, an adaptation of a song Eddie wrote for his solo tour) and knowing a bit more about the EB does make the verses a lot more powerful. Ironically, Matter of Time could have really been something moving with just a little more time.


Say Hi is a simple song, just Eddie and an acoustic guitar. It’s simple earwormy melody and lyrics, would be easy to dismiss without further context in another song. Just as knowing a bit about EB helps the Matter of Time verses lyrics sing, Say Hi is written for a 6-year-old boy who has the disease. It turns what felt disposable into an open-hearted gesture that captures the unaffected empathy and warmth that Eddie radiates not only in his best music, but as a person. That underneath the public persona Eddie Vedder is, at base, someone who cannot hope but care deeply about every person he meets – someone who wants to know their story and bring just a little more light into their life than was there before.

What is kind of amazing is that there is nothing even slightly condescending about the performance. He sings with the same commitment he would any other song of this style, and treats Eli with the same generosity he would any of his other heroes. It’s a 56 year old rock star who can effortlessly command a space with 50,000 people genuinely respecting the courage of a small child, and willingly learning from his example.

“Cause the first one to reach out a hand/shows more courage than the one who does last.
With all our imperfections/your light shines in all directions/cutting through.”

I do not know more about this young boy’s illness, or his history. But the world is a slightly brighter place for this gesture. What it must mean to Eli, his family, and anyone else whose children struggle with something awful and undeserved (which is pretty much all child suffering) and take comfort knowing the gesture was made.


The rest of the EP consists of simple, unadorned presentations of Just Breathe, Future Days, Growin’ Up (Springsteen), and Porch. Just Eddie with his guitar offering live in-studio performances. They are worth a listen, even if they don’t transform the songs.

It’s nice to hear Just Breathe without the bells and whistles, and Eddie adds some of his typical live changes to the lyrics, as “I don’t want to hurt” becomes “I don’t want YOU to hurt” or “There’s so much in this world to make me bleed” to ‘make us bleed.” It captures the core beauty of the song, even if it isn’t a definitive performance.

Future Days in particular benefits from a stripped-down performance, which showcases the intimacy of the song without some of the elements on Lightning Bolt that edged it into self-parody (though I loved that violin and do miss it). It’s a song to whisper to your loved ones as they drift off to sleep – more promise than lullaby, and that it is more effectively captured here.

Eddie has leaned more heavily into his Springsteen influences in the post-Riot Act years, and it was fun to get a cover of Growin’ Up, but this isn’t new. Early bootleg cds of Eddie’s Bad Radio work had, nestled between the Chili Pepper funk influences that aged terribly, a cover of Springsteen’s One Step Up so faithful you would swear it was Bruce singing.

And while we got the definitive acoustic version of Porch in 1992, and the solo flourishes Eddie adds here are already present in the live full band versions, I’m never going to complain about another rendition of one of their greatest songs. There’s some grasping tension in the music that comes through in the acoustic version that is easy to miss in the storm and stress of the typical performances.

Ultimately the Matter of Time EP can’t be called essential, but there is material here worth the occasional visit, especially knowing more of the context. It’s also very much a record influenced by his fatherhood – both in the paternal care shown to children in the original compositions, and the ‘daddy is going to play some music and it’s going to make it all better’ vibe that colors the performance and writing in subtle but real ways. It exposes the core of much of his modern songwriting sensibilities. How it is dressed up and transformed (if at all) becomes the question.