Ukulele Songs shows us a Vedder with nothing to hide behind.
This has been coming for a while now.
It's been coming since Vedder went Nature Boy and wrote a pile of quietly gorgeous songs for Into the Wild. Since his adventures in Hawaii landed him a new attitude (and his band a new keyboardist) prior to Riot Act. Since he actually picked up a ukulele and hid the surprisingly affecting cautionary tale that is "Soon Forget" at the end of Binaural. Since Yield's widely derided "Wishlist" showed us there was a sweetly sincere side to Vedder's songwriting that exists in direct opposition to his bitter, confrontational side.
While that side of Vedder is certainly peeking out more often than it used to on Pearl Jam albums -- lovely little tracks like "Come Back" and "Just Breathe" are shockingly straightforward songs from a man who usually hides his deepest feelings in generalizations or impenetrable metaphors -- it's this, the first non-soundtrack solo album from Vedder all by himself, that finally allows that side to shine. Ukulele Songs shows us a Vedder with nothing to hide behind. There are no thunderous drums or wailing guitars to play off of, just the quiet pluck of a ukulele, an instrument whose most agitated moments sound more like dances than tantrums.
"I'm all right / It's just tonight / I can't play the part," sings Vedder on "Broken Heart", explicitly narrating the unmasking we are hearing. Ukulele Songs removes the rockstar, the activist, the raging ball of fire. It's about the husband and father. They're songs to be sung in the living room, the bedroom, songs to be sung around a backyard campfire just as the evening is coming to a close. They're songs for cold breezes and glowing embers.
As if to exorcise the ghost of the band that typically defines him, Vedder begins Ukulele Songs with a Pearl Jam song that opened a different album: "Can't Keep", a song whose swirling, building atmosphere once introduced us to the weighty, intimidating Riot Act. Where that version sounded like the futile struggle of an individual forced to conform, however, the version on Ukulele Songs feels like freedom. The tightly-strung strings ring an insistent, kinetic alarm under Vedder's baritone, and when Vedder sings "you can't keep me here", you believe him this time. This is a different man than the one we've come to know.
That out of the way, Vedder is freed to tell us about the difficulties and joys of relationships, of fatherhood, of love in general. He begins, as is his tendency, with the difficulties: "Sleeping By Myself" reveals the heartbreak of discovering the betrayal of a lover, while "More Than You Know" starts out like a sweet little love song until Vedder's obsession becomes clear as the unrequited nature of that love reveals itself.
Eventually, the album turns. "Longing to Belong", the album's first single and halfway point, is where the rays of hope shine through, a sentiment underscored by the striking cello work that lends some weight to the ukulele. "I may be dreaming, but I'm longing to belong to you," he sings, and then he lets the ukulele take over in a joyous little coda. "Light Today" also uses a sound other than the ukulele, but this time it's not an instrument -- it's the ocean. "I saw the light today," Vedder sings, and you know he won't give up until he finds his happy ending.
And then he does! First he duets with Chan Marshall on a campy but sweetly-performed cover of "Tonight You Belong to Me", following that up with a serviceable Leonard Cohen impression on another cover, "Dream a Little Dream". It's a finish that suggests that all the heartbreak and hope and struggle that came before was worth the outcome.
It leaves you feeling happy for a man who has found peace.
Not every musician could pick up a ukulele, write a handful of songs and turn it into an album worth listening to, but Vedder manages this feat in a technical sense and in a conceptual sense. On a purely musical level, Vedder can make a song featuring only himself and his little instrument sound full and complete because his voice is such a weathered, grounded thing. The baritone of that voice counteracts the sprightly sound of the ukulele, ensuring that the listener doesn't get lost in a sea of treble clef and optimism, and the combination allows Vedder a wide range of emotional expression. Perhaps more importantly, however, he uses the entire range, diving into heartbreak and contentment with equal aplomb, writing about these things that are so personal to him in such a matter of fact way that you don't see the payoff coming until it hits you.
It is certainly not a rock 'n' roll album, and it never rages. Still, it's hard to imagine that Pearl Jam fans (or even casual observers) old enough to remember when Ten was still a new and vital experience yet to be dulled by its ubiquity on MTV and rock radio wouldn't appreciate it. It's a grown-up album for grown-up fans; rest assured, Vedder isn't finished raging, but he does also have to sing his kids to sleep.