“Invincible, when we love…” – Eddie Vedder, “Invincible”
I can still remember the first time I heard Eddie Vedder’s voice. It was on a song “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog – a band formed to honor the late Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone) that featured Chris Cornell (vocals) and Matt Cameron (drums) both from Soundgarden and Mike McCready (guitar), Stone Gossard (guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass) all from Pearl Jam. Wood had been roomies with Cornell and Ament & Gossard had been bandmates of his. Vedder came in to do a co-lead vocal on “Hunger Strike.” I remember thinking, this guy is gonna be big. I remember the first time I saw Vedder, in the video for “Hunger Strike” and thinking, that big, deep voice is coming out of that guy standing in the tall weeds on a beach somewhere. It was the early 90s and I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was then called “alternative rock,” but I remember thinking I certainly needed to focus on it more. I was so dim about alt rock that I didn’t even know that Temple of the Dog was a one-off.
A few months after that a woman I knew loaned me her copy of Pearl Jam’s Ten. I had heard half the songs on the album – by then I’d started listening to the alternative rock radio station in town – but I hadn’t realized that all those kick ass songs came from the same band. “Jeremy,” “Alive,” and “Even Flow” were all Pearl Jam? In my defense, in those days a lot of grunge bands sounded alike to my distracted mind. I couldn’t believe a debut album had all these great tracks on it. I’d kind of given up on new rock n roll before grunge hit. Ten was, in my opinion, one of the greatest LPs ever. It’s a perfect album. The song I always dug was, yes, the ballad “Black.” The early 90s were a tough period for me on that “interpersonal” level. While I immediately loved Pearl Jam I didn’t connect Eddie Vedder (or the other band members) with Temple of the Dog. Even then, I still thought TotD was a Soundgarden “off-shoot.” It was that year, late summer/early fall that Pearl Jam exploded like a super nova. I remember seeing videos of Pearl Jam in concert and Vedder, this handsome, charismatic lead singer swathed in flannel, was climbing up in the lighting rig and jumping into the crowds. I was dating a (different) woman at the time and she’d always say she loved his hands and as the Stones sang, “the way (he) held the microphone.” He was so visceral and intense. The sincerity gripped you like a vice and wouldn’t let you go. When he sang he looked like he was living the lyrics and was on the verge of spontaneous combustion. I was worried he’d stroke out on stage.
Needless to say, I was amongst the very large wave of people who crowded onto the Pearl Jam bandwagon. I heard Vedder tell a story on the radio once about an early PJ gig. He said the big room they were playing in was empty and he closed his eyes, started singing, and when he opened his eyes the room was full. It’s hard to overstate how “in to” Pearl Jam we all were. I remember being at the record store when it opened just to buy Vs the day it came out. Vedder drew a lot of the focus. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. I was all in at the time but it wasn’t until the tour behind their third LP Vitalogy that I got to see them live – at Red Rocks, no less – and I was blown away. It was truly one of the best shows I’ve seen. They were at war with Ticketmaster and I was on team Pearl Jam. Vedder was as charismatic as I’d imagined and more so. I remember by the time they played the encore, “Yellow Ledbetter” I knew I’d always be a Pearl Jam fan. While I dug Vedder I’d be remiss in not saying, Mike McCready is a BEAST on guitar, but I digress.
Sadly, as the 90s wore on, grunge as a musical force ran it’s course. Worse than that, so many of the leading musicians of the movement passed away. They were kind of known for heroin and it claimed many of them. Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone (a great band everyone should check out) was an early casualty. Kurt Cobain from Nirvana was probably the biggest blow. Years later heroin and opioids hung around long enough to claim Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), Layne Staley (Alice In Chains), and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden/Audioslave). I’m glad Vedder never went that way. He had a tough childhood as documented in the song “Alive.” He was informed when he was in his early teens his real father had just died and the man he thought was his father was really his (abusive) stepdad. Eddie toughed it out, as did Pearl Jam. They have been a consistently good band all along. While known more for their live stuff these days, their studio output should get a lot more attention. Gigaton, while a very serious treatise on the environment, was a great record.
Pearl Jam has found a nice, albeit slow rhythm. They’ll put out an album, tour for a while, tour again, tour again, and then finally every six or seven years record another album. With that rather lax recording schedule one might think the members would do a lot more solo work, especially Vedder. While I fully expected a robust solo career from Eddie, it seems he’s been more reluctant about a solo career. He would do a stray soundtrack tune like “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” on the soundtrack for I Am Sam or show up to sing with the Who or Pete Townshend on a live LP or do co-lead vocal on “Drive All Night” with his buddy Glen Hansard but there wasn’t a Rod Stewart-in-the-Faces solo LP in between every band LP. It certainly would have been understandable.
His first “official” solo LP was actually the 2007 soundtrack to Into the Wild. The Rock Chick bought that album for me on Valentine’s Day one year. At the time I read that Vedder used Pete Townshend’s Who Came First, a homespun record indeed, as the blueprint for the soundtrack. It was an all right LP, but it was a soundtrack with a lot of instrumental tracks. I’m glad I have it just for the fabulous cover “Hard Sun” which is a staple on the B&V Summer/Sun playlist. He followed that up in 2011 with the fabulous Ukulele Songs, but even I’ll admit, it was an album of songs played on the ukulele. Not exactly something that’s going to compete with Metallica on rock radio. It really is a great album. At that point it’s hard to not see his solo career away from Pearl Jam as anything but casual and low key.
Finally, last week saw the release of Eddie’s first actual, proper solo album Earthling, with nary a ukulele in sight. It was produced by Andrew Watt who did Ozzy’s last solo LP Ordinary Man. Watt also plays bass on the album. They’re joined by drummer Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) who also played on the Ozzy album and guitarist and former Red Hot Chili Pepper Josh Klinghoffer. Vedder obviously sings and plays guitar. Elton John, who also did a guest spot on the aforementioned Ozzy album shows up here on the song “Picture.” There are a few other guests who show up as well including Stevie Wonder (harmonica on “Try”), Benmont Tench (organ on “Long Way”), and yes, Ringo Starr (drums on “Mrs. Mills”). I have to say, I’m ecstatic about this album. It almost comes across as a side-project/band album as Watt, Chad Smith and Klinghoffer share some writing credits. All the lyrics are Vedder’s. If you’ve been held off on any of Vedder’s previous solo work, this is the LP you’ve been waiting for. Stylistically it’s an eclectic mix of styles and songs but they all hang together. I can certainly say, this album is never boring. The Rock Chick felt it came off the rails a little on the second half, but the more I listen the less I agree with her on that one.
The album starts with “Invincible” which sounds like a call to arms set to drums. It doesn’t sound like it but it reminds me of a mellower “Know Your Rights” by the Clash. It’s a perfect table setter, if you will. You veer from that into the most Pearl Jam-y sounding song on the album “Power of Right.” It’s a great rocking anthem full of fuzzy guitar verging on arena rock (and I mean that in a good way). Chad is the MVP on this song on the drums. This track could have been on Gigaton. Then comes the first single, the Petty-esque (even including Ben Tench on organ) “Long Way” which we’ve previously reviewed. At this point you’ve gone from an almost spoken word piece to a straight ahead rocker to a midtempo road song. Yet it all works. “Brother the Cloud” is another great rock song where Vedder laments a lost friend. It’s got a Talking Heads funky bridge that brings to mind the recent “Dance of the Clairvoyants” from Pearl Jam’s last LP. “Fallout Today” is an acoustic driven track that I just love. Vedder’s vocal is wonderful. “The Dark” is another anthem style rock song, I love the riff on this one. “The Haves” is another beautiful acoustic ballad/love song. The gist of that track is the titular “Haves” may have all the money and stuff, but I’ve got you baby and that’s all I need. With all the style shifts over the first half, I have to admit, this sounds like the most fun Vedder has had in years. And it’s a lot of fun for we the listeners as well.
At this point we shift to kind of the harder rocking, punk section of the album, starting with “Good And Evil.” This is where the Rock Chick jumped off the bandwagon. At first listen I wasn’t crazy about “Good And Evil” with its Ramones style speed rock and barking vocals. It’s reminiscent of “Lukin” by PJ. It’s a meet me at the finish line track. The more I hear it though, I can’t lie, it’s growing on me. The next rocker is “Rose of Jericho” which I like significantly more. But it’s a muscular, more riff-y track. “Try” is another speed rocker with Stevie Wonder on harmonica. It’s another meet me at the finish line, speed rocking track. Stevie sounds like he’s running out of breath trying to keep up. The more I hear these tracks the more they grow on me, especially “Rose of Jericho.” Chad’s drumming in this section of the album is fabulous and Vedder/Klinghoffer meld their guitars very well.
Elton shows up on the duet “Picture.” It features an old school barrel-house piano from Elton. I really like this song, although the Rock Chick insists that Elton has lost a step vocally in his late career. Again it sounds like Elton and Eddie are having a great time and I like the song. From there, the album takes it’s broadest stylistic turn for the Beatlesque “Mrs. Mills.” Ringo even shows up to play drums on the string drenched song. Eddie doing a track that sounds like Paul McCartney wrote it? Yes, please. It’s a beautiful track.
This album is an absolute treat. It’s nice to hear Vedder and his cohorts – Watt, Chad Smith, Klinghoffer – playing so tightly and yes, having a good time doing so. I know the band is out on the road – with Pino Palladino from the Who stepping in on bass guitar – and I’d love to see this show. This is an absolute must have album and the first really great album of 2022. I urge all of you who like Eddie, who like Pearl Jam and who like rock n roll to check this one out. It may be an eclectic collection of songs but so is Exile On Main Street. As I’m prone to say, pull the bar down over your knees and enjoy the roller coaster ride!