Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Eddie Vedder's Solo Work (2020-2022) / Earthling, Part 1

Credit: Danny Clinch

With Earthling, Eddie Vedder finally released his first true solo album. Not encumbered by the narrative and stylistic restrictions imposed by a soundtrack, or the constraints of writing for a ukulele, we are finally offered an unencumbered glimpse into who Eddie Vedder is, musically, outside of Pearl Jam. Earthling does not carry any of the expectations and burdens of a Pearl Jam record – it can be anything Eddie wants it to be, and its songs won’t immediately be tracked and ranked in the context of a thirty-year history. He is free to follow his instincts and working with producer Andrew Watt (himself a Pearl Jam superfan) the results focus on Eddie’s strengths as a songwriter, lyricist, and performer while enabling him to truly celebrate the eclectic collection of influences that form the true core of his musical identity.

As a result, we get the return of familiar themes, but explored and celebrated in ways we wouldn’t necessarily see on a Pearl Jam record, where every idea is filtered both through the prism of what Pearl Jam should sound like and four other artists with distinct sonic identities who are equal owners of the work, rather than through a collection of talented musicians present there to help Eddie develop his own unique musical vision.

The album is still full of grand sweeping statements, warmth, and empathy. It would have to be – that part of Eddie Vedder is not a Pearl Jam fabrication. It is embedded in his musical DNA. The whole record, from the title of Earthling (the base common denominator that unites us together) to its closing coda, plays like a warm hug from an old friend that just wants to make sure you’re doing okay in difficult times. But despite the need to make statements, there is a casual flow to the album, a willingness to play, to be a little silly (without irony) that is not regularly found on Pearl Jam albums (and frequently feels out of place when it is). It’s odd, as those moments regularly crop up in the solo work of the other members, and the conventional wisdom was that it was Eddie keeping those moments of lightness off the album. But they’re present here, and hopefully the artistic success of Earthling empowers Eddie and the rest of the band to follow in the footsteps of Dance of the Clairvoyants and continue to push the boundaries of what Pearl Jam can and should be.

Probably the best way to achieve this is by making space within Eddie’s writing and performance for the other influences we do not typically see crop up on a Pearl Jam album. Earthling is a very 80s sounding record – not necessarily in its direct musical choices (though some of those influences do appear) as much as it feels very much of a time before grunge and alternative, when rock was able to be whatever you wanted it to be, rather than the aesthetic reaction to that philosophy that informed the glory days of the early and mid-90s and that Pearl Jam, for better or worse, has been tied to ever since.

In many ways, the Eddie Vedder we get on Earthling is the one that most closely approaches the one we see in the live shows – Eddie the performer, swept up in the moment with several (thousand) of his closest friends. Happy to be in a collective space sharing music – any music. Covers are an important part of the live Pearl Jam experience – a way to pay homage to those who paved the way, those whose work influences them now, and a way to introduce new musical voices, perspectives, and vocabulary into a catalog that doesn’t always make space for them. And Earthling sometimes plays like a covers record of original material. But it’s more to a show than the covers - the reinvention of older songs that turn struggle into celebration, private moments into communal experiences, the breathless anticipation for what comes next, knowing that anything COULD happen, and the collapsing of distance between performer and audience that makes simply being in the space an act of solidarity. That’s the philosophy that informs Earthling, that gives it its energy, its good will, and its power. Earthling finally captures in studio everything we have always known about who Eddie is, and that we collectively have been conspiring to keep out for reasons that, in retrospect, none of us can identify. It’s a reinvigorating experience from the opening notes to a coda that caps not only the journey of an album but an entire career, long overdue and most welcome.


The Peter Gabriel influenced Invincible is a small miracle of an opener. The junior spaceman quasi-spoken word opening is ridiculous and would in theory be laughed off a Pearl Jam record. There is nothing cool or profound about it, and it has such big goofy dad energy that it should immediately cause an eye roll. But it is a such a huge, cynicism free, well-meaning swing, backed by majestic, transcendent ‘statement’ music that it’s almost impossible not to get carried away by it, an alchemical trick that really has no equivalent in the catalog.

It doesn’t hurt that Eddie sounds as great as he does. He spends almost the entire album signing comfortably in his range, and for Invincible, a sweeping, soaring song, he parks himself right in that magical space where his voice takes on that otherworldly quality that floats towards the horizon and carries the listener with it. There is also a curious mixture of cheese and profundity that meshes so well together it must be making some kind of statement I don’t fully understand. If nothing else, it disarms the listener and makes it very clear that even though this album is going to take you on a journey, and make you feel powerful things, it also wants you to leave your inhibitions behind and embrace the purity of the musical experience (just as the live shows do).

After the opening check in (how is everyone doing tonight? Are you okay? Are you ready for a journey?) we get the transition lines “feeling wider than awake/better crooked than straight” promising something magical, expansive, unexpected before transitioning into the chorus “Invincible, when we love.” It’s a near perfect distillation of everything the musical journey of eleven albums and thirty years have been building towards – the answers we have been searching for since Ten began exploring with no map in hand, no destination in mind, but armed with the conviction that there is something out there worth finding. Over time the catalog taught us that it is better to search together than alone, that the search itself was generative of meaning, that the principal obstacle in our way is so often ourselves, and that we are deserving of the destination. It’s a simple claim, but that simplicity belies a breathtaking truth underneath it. Our individual power and strength, our light and heat come from the connections we draw from each other. And as Eddie reminded Bruce Springsteen, the inverse is true as well. When we separate ourselves from each other, when we are closed off from each other, we are vulnerable, diminished.

Invincible recognizes the fragility of our condition, and the verses don’t shy away from this. Immediately upon sharing his thesis statement we get the foreboding warning “there’s smoke on the horizon and the clouds are looking violent. There’s a future in need of a frame.” And later, in what may be my favorite lyrics on the album “We got the density of our beings, the unbearable weight, the unbearable light, the unbearable weight, lets lift it up.” The juxtaposition of the terrifying obstacles in our way, the equally terrifying power and potential to move beyond them, and the shinning iron core belief that together we can embrace the light and carry the weight.

It's that connection that is at the heart of Invincible's message – that all of our individual potential is only fully realized together, by living our interdependence and connectivity, our past and future, our history and our dreams, our individual consciousness and the world it resides in .

“At the core of the cosmos we are so much more than particles
Sonic to subatomic, you are a whisper and a scream
You are, we are, all part of this everything
You are light, you are principle
When you love, invincible
Our shared light, indivisible”

There is labor ahead of us, but every bit of darkness we create has the potential to be offset by our inner light “the humanity, the calamity, the spilling blood, the gravity…who could ask for more?”

It is a lot to take in, but the music, the performance, the lyrics, make it impossible to do anything but believe. It’s a similar sentiment to what appeared on tracks like Infallible (in an inverted way) or 7 O’Clock – both are more inherently political songs than Invincible -but both of those songs lack the good will, the unencumbered, almost childlike conviction, that it can and will be okay, if we embrace our own collective power. Previous songs have reached for this space and, for fleeting moments, found it. Invincible is the first time Eddie has decided to start within and explore its potential. The result is a glorious celebration that somehow feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable. It’s a hell of a way to start a record.


The album transitions into a heavier, darker song, though its warnings are offset by pianos, handclaps, a fuzzy warmth that softens its more ominous moments, and what is ultimately a hopefully chorus. Power of Right addresses the skeptics who aren’t quite ready to embrace the message of Invincible. The “bright man scared, living in fear.” As is usually the case with Eddie’s writing, his better instincts steer him away from judgement and condemnation, and towards understanding and empathy. The portrait is sympathetic “his intimidation born of his fear, hypnotized, bloodshot eyes and a mind unclear. Fading light that disappeared.” This is someone lost, flailing, lashing out, but capable of being rescued.

And the power of right finds him. It’s not entirely clear what it is, though it is anthropomorphized, feminized, and strong enough to endure his false start and subsequent failures. Embracing the power of our shared humanity is not a linear journey. It requires letting go of what we carry, what we know, what we expect, to make ourselves vulnerable and open to something different. Eddie sings in the bridge “Fuck the past or you’ll fuck your future. No questions asked, for fear the truth hurts.” The truth does hurt, and this is not the journey of a day or a week, nor is it achieved without backsliding and resistance. Our country/world’s ugly and cruel backlash in the face of a long overdue reckoning with the impact of our own past in the service of a more equitable future makes this clear. But the power of right is that it doesn’t go away. It gets back up. It endures. It lives on in the people willing to carry it. And it will still be there when the people who need it are finally ready to receive it.


Long Way is a genre exercise in sounding like Tom Petty, and goes so far as to bring in Petty’s organist, the first time he played since Petty’s death. The love and respect Eddie had for Petty is clear, and Long Way plays as tribute rather than pastiche, and fully understands what was magical in his approach. The music is warm, road ready, a companion for a long journey you don’t want to take alone, with an impactful bridge, and comfortable, meandering outro. Eddie slots comfortably into Petty’s style, and for a song about doomed love, it is surprisingly hopeful and uplifting with the harmonies, a soaring transition into the final chorus, cathartic guitars, and the comfort that comes from knowing your singular experience isn’t yours alone –others have been there and gotten through, and so will you.

The issue with Long Way is that for an almost 5 minute song, and on an album with almost universally strong and engaging lyrics, the Long Way chorus “He took the long way on the freeway,” feels slight and thin. Eddie’s delivery works, as he gives it a loving, breathy purr. And it is a very Petty lyric. But the sentiment is repeated over and over and over, and it’s not a strong enough phrasing to justify the attention it gets. Usually Eddie finds a way to introduce subtle shifts in repetitive choruses to change or recontextualize their meaning and impact (as he just did on Invincible and Power of Right, and to particularly powerful effect on The Dark) but that doesn’t happen here.

Fortunately, while this did hurt Long Way’s power as a single, as an early album pallet cleanser (the first two songs are fairly intense, as is the one that follows) it works much better in the context of the energy, and its not hard to imagine Tom Petty looking down and smiling.


Although it’s not immediate clear from the gentle exploratory charge of the music, Brother the Cloud is one of the darker songs on the record. It is a survivor’s reaction to death and loss, desperately missing the person who is gone, and angry at them for what they’ve made him feel. The song doesn’t claim that the anger is legitimate, just that it is real, and this is an important distinction. The human response to tragedy is not always the right one, but we work with and through what we are given, not what we wish had.

The actual subject of the song is never identified by name, but Eddie has been clear that he is writing about a specific person, and some reviews have claimed that this is about his actual brother, to whom he was very close (and whose 2016 death Eddie was processing at the time of Chris Cornell’s suicide). It’s easy to read suicide into the lyrics, though it isn’t necessary. The core of the song is the loss, the belief it was not inevitable, possibly the product of irresponsible or ill-fated choice. The brother could be literal, but it could be anyone close.

The central fact of the loss, and its experience as a perpetual open wound, is the source of the anger underneath the music: the willingness to give up everything to get the person back, to pray so long and so hard your knees bleed, and to feel the loss so acutely that you cannot even escape into dreams, trapped as you are in this awful continuous moment. “These are but dreams/as sad as it seems/I’m always wide awake.” Eddie knows his way around water metaphors, and beautifully captures the sentiment “Enlarge the hole in my heart/rising river in the dark/Erodes the shore ‘til our shores were far part” – the language evokes darkness, flood, rising distance, permanence. The scariest thing about the resentment the singer feels is the fear that it will eventually overpower the love he has for the person – that the pain he is feeling will be redirected back to the departed as an act of self-protection.

And with that the sentiment the song pivots in a harder direction for its final minute, when he indulges in the grief wish fulfillment fantasy of asking the next person to leave him to find his brother in and let him know that he hasn’t forgiven him for leaving. It’s a spiteful moment, and though its clear from the restrained performance that he regrets it he cannot help himself. It would be out of character, except the song focuses on the reality of, rather than the legitimacy of, the feeling. And while the phrasing is a little awkward, he gives the final “what are friends for?” lyric that soaring emphasis that always bumps a song up at least half a star. Given the experiential, rather than justificatory, nature of the lyrics, it manages to come together, and the next two songs on the record will work through alternatives.


The first of two songs about trying to reach people before it’s too late (preventative measures as there is no way to inoculate yourself against the pain of Brother the Cloud without abandoning the love that caused the pain), Fallout Today offers a casual promise of grace and unconditional support, and the ‘don’t worry about, I got you’ shrug of the music works to lower the volume and stakes (by design) of what is otherwise a fairly seriously set of lyrics.

Fallout Today is addressed to someone struggling, lashing out, and making mistakes (the fallout today), as we all do when we are wounded. It reminds her both that its okay to be in pain, and that the people in your life are there so you don’t need to face it alone (recall the alternative if they don’t from just a song ago). And that the people you love will forgive you your human failings in times of stress and crisis, so you can focus on your own healing.

“Second chances granted one more time
And in the depths of darkness, found the light
And the hope she thought abandoned
Was not lost for her companion, kept it safe”

It’s a powerful reminder, as we’ve all hurt the people trying to help us, and dwelling on our actions keeps us from processing and working through the challenges in front of us. But it goes beyond that – if you reach for them they will not only forgive you, they’ll support you, because that’s what you do for the people you love. They want you to embrace and work through your pain, and want to support you in the journey. “Don't make light of this weight. You'll fortify it's chains.”

And as Eddie often does so well (though not in Long Way), small changes within repeated lyrics expand the scope and meaning of the message, as the earlier chorus lyric “don’t beg for forgiveness/we all need to share and shake the pain” changes into “never beg for forgiveness/it’s a gift to share and shake the pain”. A request turns into a commandment, and a need you have for others becomes a gift you can give to them. It’s a purer, healthier distillation of the ‘what are friends for’ that concluded Brother the Cloud.


The Dark: The Dark is maybe the purest (or at least the most successful) distillation of Springsteen’s influence on Eddie as a songwriter. There is a liberating, purifying, transformative energy to the music and performance of The Dark that cannot help but recall both some of Springsteen’s best 70s/80s anthems, and the spirit behind them (that Eddie has always carried and that form the core of the live experience) – that music, played with conviction and shared with those who need it, builds enduring connections, bridges uncrossable divides, and lights the way home.

Like Invincible, The Dark is one of the first time Eddie has written a song almost entirely from that moment of transcendent catharsis. He had been dancing around this idea for a while, with varying degrees of success (Love Boat Captain, The Fixer, Unthought Known, Swallowed Whole, and Lightning Bolt come to mind), but The Dark gets right down to business, the music more propulsive, and the subject matter rightfully focuses on human relationships rather than finding inspiration or the collective healing of hurts. Unlike those other songs, The Dark asks for nothing and offers everything, and achieves something magical as a result.

It doesn’t hurt that Eddie sings the hell out of this song – he keeps almost everything in a comfortable range and is able to focus on making the ‘human connection’ with the listener rather than straining for the notes. The indescribable warmth, compassion, and empathy that marks his best performances is on effortless display, and it makes the juxtaposition with the notes he reaches for at the climax more powerful (and it makes me sad that so many great songs like The Fixer or Force of Nature don’t start from a similar place). It’s a performance gifted with a survivor’s wisdom and the energy and intensity of a new experience. The music is just as powerful – it recalls the effortless sweep of Betterman’s climax, and the triumphant solo would be at home at the end of I Am Mine.

The central metaphor of The Dark is easy to grasp, but no less layered and powerful for it. Darkness embodies both loss and being lost. It keeps secret what needs to be shared (recall the message of Fallout Today). It helps us hide if we don’t want to be found and prevents us from being found when we do. And the person the singer is addressing is lost in the dark.

But The Dark isn’t about that person, at least not directly. It’s about the proactive determination of someone who loves and cares about them to pull them out before its too late (another song in conversation with Brother the Cloud). It’s why the music is so optimistic and hopeful – it’s the light illuminating the darkness, and the love that powers the light.

We get moments of aphoristic wisdom that Eddie’s voice manages to make profound “We all could use some redemption/we all fail in the face of perfection” the promise of grace in difficult times, a familiar message going back at least as far as Present Tense if not further, but rarely delivered with the urgency it is here – a truth felt in the heat of the moment rather than discovered through reflection and stillness. Eddie also offers some evocative imagery describing the metaphorical search to find the missing person

“Walking the moon as if on a leash
Follow my shadow in the sand
Blue light beaming down on me
And the footprints you have left

Your silence covers me
Like heavy water
Fathoms underneath the sea
Midnight, not a cloud in the sky
I should be lost in your eyes”

He is fearful of their silence, missing their company, tracing footsteps, underneath the moonlight of a cloudless night trying to reach them. But when we have moonlight, when we have “these nights with the sky still full of stars” it’s easy to see. The core promise of the song is to be there for them when its hard, to keeping searching even when the stars are absent, to find them in the dark.

The final lyrical trick is the subtle shift at the end with the shift from the commitment to “find you in the dark” to the invitation to “come find me in the dark”. The reminder that you aren’t alone, and the restoration of power and agency in times of loss, grief, trauma, and pain. That you don’t have to wait to be saved – that if you reach out in the darkness someone will be there to take your hand. And the promise that in reaching out we find each other (we’re invincible when we love) comes together in the final fusion of “I’ll find you in the dark. Come find me in the dark.” Shared invitation, shared obligation, shared salvation.

Awesome song to end the day.  Look for Part Two tomorrow.