We gravitate towards Eddie Vedder‘s music because of his integrity and authenticity. Both are at the core of his art. We are also attracted to how he deals with loss in his music, and we pour our own loss into our listening.
The experience of loss has long been with Vedder. From the detonation that was Pearl Jam’s Ten (1991), “Alive” became the first song to deliver the band to the world. A song about loss and losing one’s bearings in life. “While you were sittin’ home alone at age thirteen / your real daddy was dyin’, sorry you didn’t see him ‘ but I’m glad we talked”. “Alive” was the song that established Pearl Jam as a band. The music was originally written by guitarist Stone Gossard, and Vedder wrote the now-famous lyrics for it as an audition for the band. On the foundations of this cathartic experience, Pearl Jam was formed.
Loss would later define Vedder and Pearl Jam during that tragic night at the Roskilde Festival in 2000 when nine people were trampled to death. This incident made Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam question if they would ever play live again. Finally, losing close friend and fellow musician Chris Cornell from Seattle grunge act, Soundgarden, to suicide in 2017 left an equally devastating mark.
Authenticity, loss, and especially perseverance are also at the center of Into the Wild (2007), Vedder’s debut solo album and soundtrack to the Sean Penn-directed film of the same name. Based on the John Krakauer novel, the film follows real-life hobo-by-choice Christopher McCandless, who in pursuit of authenticity, sets out on a spiritual pilgrimage that ultimately ends up costing his life. Penn sought out Vedder specifically to do the score, and Vedder agreed to do it, feeling a strong but eerie connection to Christopher’s character, quest, and fate.
On Earthling, his third solo album, loss again meanders through the music, but this time the emphasis is on what inevitably takes its place.
Earthling sets off with “Invincible”, an empathetic, soft rocker that ensures everyone is on board for the ride. Synths merge with classic guitar picking and that ’80s drum sound – large, echoing floor tom, crisp hi-hatting, and metronome-tight playing. We’re on 2000-era U2 turf here. Emotions are high, and we’re off the ground. “Power of Right” takes a pop-rock metal turn with hammer-keys dominating throughout. Both songs are compelling and promising and work well as an energetic intro before we hit the more emotional stretch of songs “Long Way”, “Brother the Cloud”, and “The Dark”.
“Long Way” is a loving homage to the late, great Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with a chorus lifted straight from Petty’s touring bag: “She took the long way, on the freeway”. We smile and simultaneously pinch ourselves at Petty’s early passing and our loss, which makes the song strike deeper. Similarly, the aptly titled “The Dark” channels Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band and emulate Springsteen’s ability to lighten up dark lyrics with a buoyant melody; “I’ll find you in the dark, let me lift … lift you out of the dark”.
“Brother the Cloud” is the elephant waiting in the room. Here Vedder addresses the loss of Chris Cornell. The result is a very fierce, brutal, and earnest song. The lyrics are in your face and very personal, even coming from Vedder. “Put your arms around my friend, put your arms ’round my brother, my friend .. say for me … for you … fuck you… What are friends? What are friends for?” Only the lyrics and cartooned clouds appear in the official video, which makes for a powerful statement: he is gone.
The last third of Earthling is packed with guest appearances. If this were a concert, this is where things would really take off. Stevie Wonder ignites the party and soloes the harmonica to pieces on fast-stomping “Try”, and before we gain our breath, Sir Elton John jumps out of the cake. On the countryfied “Picture”, the duet between Vedder and Sir Elton John delights to a cheeky but very heartwarming degree. Sir Elton John’s voice suits the song so well – it’s so powerful – you can almost hear the smile on Vedder’s face broaden throughout the song.
Putting the curtain on prolific guest appearances is Ringo Starr, who sits behind the kit on the Beatles tribute, “Mrs. Mills”, which fares like a B-side to the Yellow Submarine album with its keyboard trumpet and cello sounds. A nice homage to the legendary and grossly underrated, Liverpudlian drummer. Last but not least, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers effortlessly plays the drums on all but “Mrs. Mills”.
“On My Way” closes down the Earthling set. The song is an atmospheric, tongue-in-cheek, outro tune that could be part of a James Bond film soundtrack. It consists of snatches of songs from the album, like radio-static, which gives it a meta-like effect. Singing, along with Vedder, is his late estranged biological father, Edward Louis Severson Jr., who died when Vedder was 13 years old – that very father from the “Alive” lyrics. Culled from an old disc recording that Vedder had been holding on to for a decade before daring a listen, Edward’s voice croons like a late-career Sinatra, which adds an emotional gravitas that lingers, haunting. This duet from beyond the grave has an enormous effect, adding a sense of closure to something so profound it leaves the listener levitating away happily as the album ends.
Earthling is at its best when the many channeled voices find each other and complement one another, and when Vedder balances his admiration and inspiration as on the aforementioned, “Long Way”, “Picture” and on the devastating “Brother the Cloud”. In other places such as, “Fallout Today”, “Good and Evil”, and “Rose of Jericho” Vedder’s lyrics and impassioned performances are weighed down by predictable arrangements and bombastic production. Earthling swells when Vedder’s voice is momentarily allowed to breathe, such as on “The Haves” and “On My Way”.
Earthling is a grounded, earnest, weird, and sometimes corny album. It’s is a hodgepodge of inspiration, whims, and deep contemplation. It’s also a very uncalculated album – nothing is hidden or shielded in irony or convoluted symbolism. Earthling wears its earnestness on its sleeve and that is an underrated asset.