Monday, February 21, 2022

Eddie Vedder's Solo Work (2020-2022) / Flag Day

Credit: Josh Klinghoffer

I confess I haven’t actually seen the Flag Day movie, so I cannot talk about the songs in the context of the film, which may be a disservice to the record. But it is, at base, about the complicated relationship between a father and daughter, and the way that the father’s larger than life choices (in this case a counterfeiter/criminal) complicate her life and love for him. It’s not hard to see why Eddie was drawn to the project, in addition to the Sean Penn (who wrote/directed) connection.

It's also a collaborative work between Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard (regular touring companion of Eddie with an accomplished career in his own right), and Cat Power. This review will focus on the songs Eddie wrote/performed, so it won’t touch on the Cat Power contributions, or the solo Hansard song (which are likely necessary for the overall arc of the record – Cat Power’s songs in particular seem like important parts of the daughter’s journey) . Arguably overshadowing the record, at least initially, is the presence of Eddie’s older daughter Olivia, who sings lead vocals on two of the tracks. In his recent interview with Bruce Springsteen, Eddie revelated that Olivia was brought in to provide some scratch female vocals for two songs that were intended for someone else (one assumes Cat Power, but that’s not confirmed). Penn liked the performance so much he kept her versions. On the surface it could smack of nepotism, but Olivia absolutely earns her place on the record – her two songs are highlights, and her performance is tentative and vulnerable and beautiful in all the right ways. It captures the core complexity of the bond between imperfect father and the daughter who can’t help but love him, and the real-life father/daughter relationship in the performance only enhances the experience.

This is a slow burn record that likely takes a few listens to unlock. It’s unhurried, and there is a subtle distance in the production and performances that add to the sense of disconnect and uncertainty that defines the core character relationships. Sadness, disappointment, and a fear of getting too close and experiencing these things again, but a willingness to keep reaching out because you can’t choose who you are bound to. The songs aren’t showy (with one exception), and at first glance they can even feel perfunctory until you start to understand where the reluctance is coming from. It is not as strong a set of songs as Into the Wild, whose immediacy and awe make them more initially engaging, but this is an album worth sitting with, and the songs create a space Eddie hasn’t really explored in Pearl Jam, at least not at length.


Written by Eddie and Glen, and sung by Olivia, My Father’s Daughter is Flag Day’s central track, and kicks off the record with its thesis statement. The music is slow, stately, and mournful, but it’s not sad or depressing for the weathered, enduring love underneath it. It’s a warm hug at a funeral, a promise between survivors not to lose each other. The overall composition is more scenic than atmospheric – the dusty small town feel, with its sense of decline, abandonment, and stubborn pride, is palpable.

There is a shaky determination in Olivia’s performance, a willingness to be vulnerable and at risk, without faith in an eventual payoff, because of some foundational, emotional connection that cannot be explained and requires no justification. The melody is lovely, delicate, uncertain, and the lyrics portray what must be an immensely complicated relationship. The opening verse captures how tentative and unreliable, even unknowable, the father is:

“Out beyond the reaches
Rare as a blood moon, you show, then cover up your tracks
And through the thinning branches
I watched your taillights turn
And wondered if you're ever coming back”

And we learn early on this is not a good man, as she sings “Trouble came to find you/shadowed into every word and deed ‘til it got you in its spell.”

But despite it all, there is a quiet inevitability to her loyalty. Lyrics like “they can go to hell” or even “never gonna leave him. Despite the rights or wrongs I got you and I hope that you know” aren’t given any particular emphasis (which isn’t to say they aren’t well delivered – just that they don’t become flashpoint moments in the song). There’s no catharsis – just the presentation of fact. It’s what gives the song, and the idea, its power. There aren’t really choices here. One doesn’t choose their family (at least within the logic of the song). The connection simply is, and defines us by the brute fact of its existence. “I am my father’s daughter, come hell or high water.”


The title track marks Eddie’s first vocal, another logical point of entry. It’s another slow burner, drenched in Americana (even the titular holiday is something you can only imagine getting celebrated in a small rural town). Flag Day is a character study of the father, and it’s not particularly flattering. It captures his transient nature, the self-serving wanderlust, the start-stop nature of his relationship with the daughter, but doesn’t defend or justify it. It just describes. The ambiguity of the songs relationship to the father enhances it and is in line with My Father’s Daughter. It doesn’t lionize or condemn him. He is who he is, and the songs refuse to judge. It can’t. The complexity of the relationship is such that it cannot be fully understood by anyone outside of it. It’s a mature choice and fits well with Eddie’s larger sensibilities. He is at his best as a writer and performer when he focuses on capturing the emotional complexity of a relationship, rather than evaluating it.

The start is a little rough. The lyrics are a little chunky in the beginning, and they trip up the vocal melody, part of an unfortunate recent tradition of excellent songs with sloppy and underwhelming openings (see also Lighting Bolt and Force of Nature). But once we enter the second verse “Lock it up and burn it to the ground, a man must have his reasons’ Flag Day begins to build the momentum and movement (the violin, piano, and bass in particular are doing excellent work coloring in the composition) that is essential to the character and the composition – that despite himself something in his nature compels him to remain unsettled, despite the human cost it may carry. “We’re a long way from where we started and further from any promise made” is a great lyric that embodies the emotional and moral complexity of the situation.

The second verse paints an evocative picture culminating with “he’s got one foot in the fire and another stepping on a train” capturing the image of a self-destructive hustler who cannot help himself despite the pain he causes. The bridge offers the song a powerful climax, doubly felt for the lack of one in My Father’s Daughter. The mantra “one life was never enough” captures both the larger than life perception the daughter (and father) had of him, as well as the need to keep moving and the regret over who is left behind. It doesn’t justify his absence, but it explains it as they both understood it.

Overall, it’s a strong composition and performance, one without obvious roots in the catalog. Whether that is due to the film’s source material, Hansard’s influence, or the fact that it just doesn’t sound like the kind of song Pearl Jam would write, it both stands alone and makes you wish the band (or Eddie) would mine this well a bit further.


Tender Mercies offers a duet between Glen Hansard and Eddie. It’s not entirely clear who the performances are representing. Glen is likely in the role of the daughter. Eddie could be the father, or could be the part of her daughter that is grappling with her own disappointment in him.

Glen begins with a whispered delivery that opens into a brittle, pleading chorus. It’s a moving, gorgeous performance. “It’s taken us so long to learn the world is coming down around us while we wait our turn. Now we’re running out of road and hope, where have you gone.” Eddie’s performance is a bit more knowing and subdued – less of the emotional pain and longing, more hard won and world weary advice – urging the daughter to stay strong and true (to herself, or him, isn’t clear). The chorus ratchets up in intensity, building into an electric bridge and explosive finale, Glen screaming for something to hold onto while Eddie’s background vocals try and ultimately fail to provide that stability. “We’re running out, still plain in doubt, still jumping from the windows of love. Your tender mercies. They weren’t enough.” It’s a dark ending to a powerful song and unpacks and complicates what may have felt like a superficial acceptance of an uncomfortable and unhealthy relationship in the first two songs. It is arguably the album’s highlight, though that can be said of Flag Day and My Father’s Daughter as well.


A simple instrumental guitar piece colored in by Eddie’s wordless longing. It’s a gentle, affecting performance that unpacks the inner life of one of the characters (likely the father, since Eddie seems to inhabit that character in the songs. Plus the title offers a bit of clue). He does stretch for a few notes that are generally outside his range these days, and the vocal gets a little scratchy and distorted. I do find it a bit distracting, especially since the rest of it sounds so good, but there is also a case to be made that is a moment of despair intermixed with the constant sadness. It’s a minor song, but it gives the father some depth and texture and make him more sympathetic in the process – all through the alchemy of Eddie’s voice.


Olivia’s second performance is a haunting wish for the home and safety and stability she’s never known, a plea to “take her/them home where they can be with the ones they love.” The music creates a dreamy atmosphere, with a gentle moonlight, rolling percussive quality that matches perfectly onto the lyrics. The song circles around that core idea for the length of its run time. Olivia initially is singing for travelers she spots out at sea, but Eddie (again representing the father) comes in with the second verse, and the lyrics shift to their collective desire, concern (and in his case, guilt) that “the girl out in the big wide world” find her way back “Blinking stars burning bright in the night. Lead them safely home”. It’s a simple song, but everything is well executed, and it is a pleasure to hear Eddie and Olivia sing together, and the way Eddie’s voice captures that quiet parental concern mixed with the reluctant understanding that at a certain point, all you can do is wish for your child’s safety as they make their way into the world without you.


I’ll Be Waiting offers us a glimpse into the father’s interiority. It helps us explore the joy he finds in his wanderlust, along with what he imagines is his promise to his daughter to find a way to be there for her. The music is jaunty in a way the rest of the album isn’t, and it’s a nice change of pace from what is otherwise a record that feels heavy despite its general sparseness. At two and a half minutes it moves with a spring in its step, as the father is not likely to linger too long in any reflective space. The music works, and the performance is mostly charming, but this does feature the weakest lyrics on the record. “I’ll be an ass-beater, honey. I’m gonna work hard night and day” isn’t great. And while “When the blue night blacks above you and your old ghosts come out to play” is a promising start “I’ll be Dan Aykroyd honey, I’m gonna chase those ghouls away” is far too specific a reference (perhaps it is in the film). His voice cracks in a way that is perhaps intended to be charming and endearing but serves to break the spell more than anything else.

But the song recovers and climaxes with Eddie offering a soaring “When you call me I’ll be ready.” It’s in the register in which Eddie can do no wrong, and as the only point on the album where he captures that energy (by design) it makes I’ll Be Waiting event listening in the context of Flag Day, even if overall this is arguably the weakest of Eddie’s songs on the album.


Primarily a Glen Hansard number, with Eddie’s backing vocals providing the ballast as Glen coasts along a gentle melody that is simultaneously peaceful and just a little dangerous – not for any immediate threat, but for the promise that it is carrying the person away and “you’re gone before I had a chance to say goodbye.” There’s not a ton to unpack, but it is a great atmospheric piece that fits in well with the overall aesthetic and feel of the album, and is a quiet highlight. I do not know Glen’s music, but Wave and Tender Mercies make it clear that I should.


It is a straight, unadorned cover of REM’s Drive, one of their many, many, masterpieces. Mileage will vary. I like covers, and if I had millions of dollars I’d hire Eddie to sing REM’s entire catalog, so I welcome its presence, though it’s something of an odd fit with the rest of the album.

It’s a game performance, and although it is faithful cover, there are some slightly subtle differences from the original that reward careful listening, mostly in the performance. REM’s version is a song that tries to understand and empathize with a generation they were expected to help voice, sung at the height of Michael Stipe’s power and influence. Eddie approaches it with his elder statesmen/father hat on. There is almost a scolding, accusatory edge to the performance. If REM’s Drive asks ‘why do we rock and roll?’ Drive warns us to do it while we still can. It is hard to tie into the rest of Flag Day, but I’m glad it’s here.

It is also a nice way to close out a collection of understated but affecting songs (though Cat Power has the final song). Flag Day, as an album, suffers a bit much from too many cooks in the kitchen. There are four lead vocalists across 13 tracks, and while there is thematic coherence across the record, with so many vocalists it can come across a bit like a collection of songs. It works against the overall impact of the album, as the songs work best in conversation with each other. Other than Tender Mercies there’s no flash here. The songs are generally quiet and moody and benefit from being heard as a unit rather than as stand-alone tracks. The sum is greater than its parts, but with too many parts the sum gets just a little bit muddled. A concluding statement (a la Guaranteed on In the Wild) would help. However, a smaller playlist of just the songs that Eddie wrote/played on (the ones reviewed here) actually works quite well and rewards the time invested in getting to know them, especially as that listen clocks in under 30 minutes, rather than the overlong 50 minutes of the full album). Obviously, this reflects a bias towards Eddie, but that’s why I am here, and if you are reading this that’s probably the case for you as well.