Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Eddie Vedder's Solo Work (2020-2022) / Earthling, Part 2

Credit: Danny Clinch
Welcome back to our review of Eddie Vedder's Earthling.  If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.  Now, let's continue where we left off.


Any song would have a hard time following The Dark, and it might be necessarily for The Haves, surprisingly the only ballad on the record, to slow down its pace. Although, like Long Way, it works better in the context of the album than as a single, it is the closest thing on Earthling to a misfire.

Eddie’s more recent saccharine influences are fully on display. The music is a bit plinky and overwrought, which you can get away with if the performance either goes for broke (it doesn’t. It’s resolutely nice until the very end, where Eddie elevates the performance in a way that feels out of synch with the music – when he lifts off in a song like Come Back the music crescendos with him), has some striking phrases (it doesn’t), or the lyrics are telling a compelling story (it’s complicated).

According to Eddie, The Haves is inspired by seeing a homeless couple emerge from a tent in an encampment and despite the hardship and tragedy around them, embrace and ready themselves to face the day together. It’s a lovely sentiment, and fits in perfectly in the context of the record. But there is a non-specificity to the lyrics that fail to recreate the scene. And it’s clear what he is going with the Have/Have Not framing in the context of the song, but that’s such a politically loaded phrase that it is simultaneously jarring and a little trite. The best moment is maybe “the ceiling’s so high/when you’re down on the floor” but even that feels a bit easy. And the lyrics seem to move between the legitimate needs and hardships the couple face and the message that if they have love they’ll be okay, and the overall point gets muddled.

Again, a lovely sentiment overall, and not a bad vocal performance, but the music is so stereotypically on brand for this kind of song it needs either an edge to the vocals or lyrics that are particularly evocative or insightful, and it lacks both. It is forgivable in the context of the album, where a bit of a breather is in order before moving into its frenetic second half. Eddie has written other, better versions of this song, but the perfect version is still out there waiting for him.


Good and Evil opens with a few vaguely eastern mystical notes before transitioning into the closest Eddie has ever come to writing a Nirvana song. Its angry and pulsating, but as with Power of Right, the fuzz on the guitars softens the edges, and it’s just a bit too melodic to be ferocious. It also has one of the more ear-wormy choruses on the record, and when Eddie returns to his punk influences in Pearl Jam I’d love to see him spend some time here rather than the poppier elements he tends to lean on.

Good and Evil is maybe the most strained vocal on the record, but Eddie still sounds good, keeps up with the frantic pace of the music (which is great), and the chorus has such a winning melody that it all works well, at least until the outro where the song flies off the rails and the song gets a bit away from him. Excellent backing harmonies on the bridge as well, with echoes of Do the Evolution (which is thematically not too far away, though DTE is grappling with more complex ideas).

It’s also the most mean-spirited song on the record, and it’s not surprising that a song called Good and Evil would have such a black and white view of the world. It’s accusatory, nasty, and it’s hard with lyrics like “look at you dressed up as hunters like some fucked-up Halloween” to not think it’s at least not partially inspired by the Trump family, though the generalized target may be bigger. Whoever it is finds themselves trapped in a solipsistic world where they are blind to their own cruelty and its consequences.

“You talked yourself, you talked yourself
You're living a lie, you
Talked yourself, you talked yourself
You self hypnotized, you
Love your wealth, you steal yourself
And dare criticize, you
Get some sleep, I hope you dream
Your own death tonight”

A really aggressive conclusion to that chorus. You could read it through a Christmas Carol lens where the experience shocks you into empathy. But the song is skeptical.

“And I wake up with forgiveness
Every day in my heart
But for you I have not got any, dear
Oh, you felt just fine
Looking the elephant in the eye
You pulled the trigger, fucking sick
I wonder why?”

Yeah, this has to be about the Trump family, right? And in a fairly rare moment for him, he doubles down not only on their hopelessness, but the satisfaction (and justice?) to be found in their prospective suffering: “I wish you well/I wish you Hell…I wish you dead/and witness your Karma.” Maybe the most pointedly nasty lyrics in Eddie’s entire catalog. The details are just vague enough, and the music playful enough, to sand down the roughest edges, but it’s definitely an out of character song.


The Rose of Jericho is a plant associated with healing, renewal and resurrection in many religious faiths. They can survive for up to seven years without water and lose up to 95% of their moisture without long term damage (thanks Google). And so it serves as an appropriate central image for a song about condemning our environmental degradation. No matter our predation:

“Forests fall by hands of man, like dominos”
“The smell of asphalt makes it hard to swallow”

Nature will endure. Rose of Jericho isn’t structured as a hopeful song per se, at least not for us, but it does lean into the power, hope, and promise of the idea the world will find a way to heal as soon as we write ourselves off the stage (and, appropriately for a hopeful record, allows that we might ‘heed the voice of the rose’ before it’s too late) .

The growling driving energy, the edge in the vocal (a cleaner performance than Good and Evil but it hits no less hard), and a genuinely catchy chorus strike the right balance between anger and empowerment (and through the combination of the two a warning). It is just requires a moment of transition to realize that we are the villains in the song. Rose of Jericho is arguably the song on Earthling that would have been the most at home on Gigaton. It’s closer musically to Take the Long Way, but a swap with Never Destination would have also worked. But it’s a challenging song to place either way. Both Gigaton and Earthling are, at their core, optimistic records (Earthling more so), and that optimism is hard to maintain in the face of the environmental degradation we continue to embrace despite knowing the costs. Still, the records need to embrace and acknowledge moments like this so the moments of light don’t feel pollyannaish.

In a weird way Earthling proper ends with Rose of Jericho. The final four songs are all defined by their relationships to their guest stars, rather than the larger themes of the record (though they don’t contradict them either). And they are fascinating peeks into the complexity of Eddie’s musical identify, and a tantalizing glimpse into directions Pearl Jam could take if they allowed themselves to take the risk.


Stevie Wonder on the harmonica. Fucking hell does he play the hell out of it. This song is just a volcanic blast of energy, and everyone is on fire. Pearl Jam has been dropping a late album barnstormer track into the second half of each album since S/T (Big Wave, Supersonic, Let the Records Play, Never Destination) and this is the song they’ve been reaching for that entire time.

There’s not a ton to unpack here. Despite the frantic pace, Eddie somehow found a vocal melody anyone could keep up with that’s a ton of fun to sing, and the harmonies at the end are a blast. I also love the moment after the first extended harmonica solo when everything drops out but Eddie’s vocals and the drums, and you realize that you wouldn’t mind a song that was just the two of them, before everyone else kicks back in and you realize you were a fool for thinking that. But still, it’s a testament to the strength of the vocal melody and the performance that it got that close.

I love the old married couple energy to this song, the lived-in feel to the relationship, the recognition that people will get on each other’s nerves and not understand why but put up with it and find a way to muddle through because relationships take work. Remarkably there’s no resentment, just a bemused acceptance that it’s necessary and a commitment to putting in the labor because the reward is worth it. And “bound by ambition/burned beneath the light” is a nice update to the “bandaged hand in hand” lyric from Hail Hail (and I imagine Try as checking up on that couple 25 years later).

Wisely the song does pause to remind the listener what’s at stake and why we put up with each other through the frustration and unearned guilt – and significantly it’s the moment when the music drops out so we can focus on the lyrics.

“Lifted with the elements, earth, sea, and sky
Hidden like the witness in your eyes
Our life is a canyon, live it deep and wide
I will try, try, baby I will try”

That’s some minorly magical phrasing that turns love into an unknowable force of nature that we can only embrace because we can never fully understand, and links Try to the core moments on Earthling.

Another incredible song. It may not have the emotional sweep of Invincible or The Dark but it’s not what I expected from a 57 year old Eddie Vedder supported by a 70 year old Stevie Wonder, and I’m so grateful it’s now in my life.


Picture: And following up Stevie Wonder we have Sir Elton John (a truly left field addition since there’s never been any prior Elton John connection in anything I can recall hearing or seeing from Eddie – although someone as in love with music history as Eddie is would of course love Elton John).

Musically this song is a blast. Even more so than Try everyone takes a back seat to let Elton John do his thing. And he’s even older than Stevie Wonder at 74, but can still play the shit out of the piano, which drives the best parts of the song. The highlight is undoubtedly the outro playing, which, as others have pointed out, borrows some of the phrasing of the Alive solo and is, not surprisingly, a joy to listen to.

Eddie largely gets out of the way and lets Elton drive the vocals, despite a fairly even sharing of lyrics. It’s clear Eddie is just happy to be there getting sing with another one his heroes.

Thematically it fits in with the dominant themes of Earthling – drawing strength in dark times from the love we have for each other. The central image of the picture freezes that moment of love and hope in time, so that as our lives continue in their broken and imperfect ways we can draw strength from that memory and carry it into the present, whether it is ensuring we don’t let “the darkness of these times break us” or heal the hurts when “I cause the sadness in your eyes.”


And here is Ringo Starr on drums playing on a song about the piano in Abbey Road. There are echoes of All Those Yesterdays in the performance, which had previously held title of the most Beatles sounding song in the Pearl Jam/Pearl Jam adjacent catalog, until Eddie wrote a song with an actual Beatle.

It’s a stunning song, and another example of how effortlessly Eddie can slot himself into other people’s work, as much a genre exercise in The Beatles as Long Way is for Tom Petty, orchestration and all. It’s literally a love song to the Abbey Road piano affectionately named Mrs. Mills after the woman who left it there. It is framed underneath a larger story where the piano is anthropomorphized into a woman who seduces artist after artist with “the ivory that is her flesh and bone,” giving them that one transcendent moment before she forces them to move on.

There’s a curiously empowering feminism to the song as well. Eddie gives a plaintive, wistful vocal, and there is vaguely unrequired sadness in the performance and music. “No one takes a Mrs. Mills home” initially reads like she is used and abandoned until we get to the key pivot line: “No one’s born to feel like they are owned” at which point it becomes clear that the singer is lamenting his own loneliness, his own desire to possess that which he cannot own, and that the power in the relationship belong with Mrs. Mills, her gifts her to dispense and withhold as she sees fit, a celebration of her autonomy.


Despite having just worked through Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Ringo Starr, On My Way has the most surprising and impactful guest star on the album. Eddie not knowing his biological father is about as foundational a piece of Pearl Jam lore as there is, and the longing to know him, to speak with him, is at the core of so many of Pearl Jam’s greatest moments. And so, it’s hard to imagine the impact it had on Eddie where, through an improbable series of events, someone got Eddie a copy of his father’s singing. Eddie carried the recordings with him for a long time before he worked up the courage to listen to them, to finally hear his father speak. And it was even more powerful to learn that he was good, and that Eddie’s talent came from him, and that he had nurtured that shared love for music into something that his father would have been proud of.

It's also hard to appreciate what it might mean for Eddie to share something so private and personal, but it makes sense that if he were going to do so, it would be to close out an album about the elemental primacy of love and the importance of human connection.

What could have felt like a gimmick works as an incredibly effective album coda. It plays like an end credits suite, the repetition of his father singing “I’ll be on my way” while Eddie reprises some of the Earthling’s lyrics in the closest thing they will ever have to a duet. These aren’t necessarily the most important lyrics in wider scope of the album, but they all make sense in the context of this moment. The song is only about two minutes longer, but any longer would have run the risk of overstaying its welcome. It’s hard to imagine a better end a record about the enduring magic and power of human connection than with Eddie telling his lost, now found father “When we love, we’re invincible.”