Aside from maybe that Jay-Z record attached to American Gangster, it’s hard to imagine a songwriter marrying up with a movie topic more logically, more effectively, than Eddie Vedder and Christopher McCandless, the detached American kid-gone-walkabout who serves as the doomed protagonist of Into the Wild. At its heart, the story of Wild is one of alienation and distancing and and the self-discovery that can be found only in wandering and escape and solitude, themes you may remember from Every Other Thing Pearl Jam Has Ever Done (if you’ve ever made out to Better Man, read that sentence again immediately). Eddie Vedder does emotional distance like Springsteen does cold dark rivers. Luckily, both chestnut metaphors still seem to be working for both.
The brief (33-minute) soundtrack for Into the Wild is Vedder’s first disc-length foray into the solo projects he’s been undertaking with increasing consistency in recent years. These have included a Beatles cover, sets at Jack Johnson’s Kokua Festival and those pre-show sets he treats Pearl Jam audiences to, which generally consist of semi-bizarro cover songs and, in one instance, a hopeful tribute to the Chicago Cubs (sorry, dog). However, Into the Wild seems, more and more with each listen, to be just about as fortuitous an occasion as he could have hoped for to crystallize some of those rock-less indulgences. Once again, that’s Vedder, Sean Penn, alienation and redemption through discovery. This album could have written itself, and in recent interviews Vedder has indicated that was more or less the case.
Satisfyingly, Into the Wild is filled with the hallmarks of such solo detours: sparse, moody crooning, more rising and falling than he allows in Pearl Jam and a surprising amount of ukulele (Vedder plays everything on the record, giving it a nice, almost homey sort of vibe). To his great credit, Vedder never veers anywhere into melancholy, though. Even the sadder tracks manage to avoid pathos wholeheartedly.
That said, Into the Wild takes a little getting used to. Aside from “Hard Sun”, the crackling first single that features Corin Tucker and is one of two non-Vedder-penned tracks here, these are songs fueled by and shaped like distance and wandering. Vedder employs a great economy of words here. Vedder’s claims that the album came together quickly is evidenced by a desire to not use more than is necessary (the album contains two instrumentals, one in which Vedder seems to be howling into a canyon by moonlight). The pretty “Rise”, one of the record’s hookiest installments, is less a song than the coda to a gospel number: “Gonna rise up/ Burning black holes in dark memories/ Gonna rise up/ Turning mistakes into gold.” The plucky, 90-second “No Ceiling”, revolves around this couplet: “I leave here believing/ More than I had.” By the time “Hard Sun” rolls around, it seems a little to come in out of some other album. It’s one of the only tracks here you could envision retrofitting into a Pearl Jam set.
A few of the tracks, such as the kickoff “Setting Forth”, come a little close to lapsing into the hyper-earnest proselytizing that Pearl Jam detractors often cite as their primary reason for drifting away from the band (“Point of no return/ Go forward in reverse,” that sort of thing). And a track like “Society” — “I think I need to find a bigger place/ ‘Cause when you have more than you think/ You need more space” — would probably seem like general coffee-shop claptrap until put into the hands of a guy like Vedder, whose made a career out of turning such potential sloganeering into something you can both rock an arena and drink a beer to.
Besides, that earnestness, that drive is also what can safely now be identified as Vedder’s primary motivator, and quite evidently not something for which he feels much like apologizing for. Had McCandless returned from his trek, it’s easy to imagine Vedder bringing him onstage for a swig of red wine and a toast or three. The kinship, even over insurmountable distance, is palpable, and it’s allowed Vedder a little rewarding, dare we say calming, wandering of his own.