Pearl Jam leader, grunge ambassador, and venerated good-guy Eddie Vedder has released his third album as a solo artist, 2022’s Earthling. The record is packed to the brim with big-name contributors, many of whom occupy positions as members of Vedder’s backing band. This speaks to the reverence held for the iconic frontman by his contemporaries, who come together in a seemingly effortless execution of some of the most engaging material we’ve heard from the songwriter in years.
Without considering the notion of bringing in Pearl Jam themselves, one would be hard pressed to conjure a more fitting assortment of musicians through which to present Vedder as an artist than the one heard throughout this record. Prior to the release of Earthling, Vedder’s solo output consisted of the 2007 soundtrack album, Into the Wild, and the aptly titled, Ukulele Songs, from 2011. While these records certainly didn’t miss the mark entirely, they never seemed to paint as clear an artistic picture of Vedder as listeners might have hoped.
This isn’t to say that the forays into new territory weren’t admirable. After being associated with a singular sound and act for much of his adult life, it is understandable that Vedder would want to express other facets of his abilities. But where these records actively avoided the treading of already covered sonic territory, Earthling embraces the intensity and excitement of Vedder’s previous work with open arms.
As a matter of fact, one might say that Earthling ramps up this energy at times. There is a palpable punk rock influence which threads through the record. As far as directional choices go, this one is satisfying on multiple levels, particularly given Vedder’s background, along with his enthusiastic 2002 induction of punk rock innovators, The Ramones, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This stylistic approach can be heard on the one-two-three punch of “Good and Evil,” “Rose of Jericho,” and “Try” which sit together in the tracklist, and threaten to leave the heads of docile listeners spinning.
The latter takes a rousingly excitable approach to its frantic, knee-slapping energy, with a chordal progression that rings more of folk than of Bad Brains. Also of note is the Stevie Wonder harmonica feature, through which the soul legend proves to be delightfully game for the moment, wailing away in a series of unruly solos over the double-time, bluegrass-infused beat.
“Good and Evil” takes on the task of kicking off the aforementioned trilogy of high-energy rockers, and recalls an uncharacteristically similar moment on Kings of Leon’s 2013 album, Mechanical Bull. The moment in question, the defiant and discordant “Don’t Matter,” follows the down-tempo rocker “Rock City,” much in the way that “Good and Evil” is bound to raise eyebrows upon its appearance immediately after the delicate piano ballad, “The Haves.”
These moments do much in defining the album, as Earthling is not content to take up residence in just one stylistic corner. More restrained numbers such as “Fallout Today,” and the aforementioned “The Haves,” display significant elements of just what make Vedder’s narrative voice – and indeed, his singing voice – so special. This, despite the emergence of a sea of imitators since his ascendence in the 90s. These tracks tackle broad concepts such as perseverance in the face of adversity, and the very human tendency of failing to appreciate what is right in front of usnin the pursuit of things which ultimately will not fulfill us.
There’s an amiability to the way Vedder goes about the business of presenting these lofty notions which, if left in less capable hands, could easily appear trite. Passages such as “Don’t make light of the weight, you’ll fortify the chains” bring to light an intuition in the singer which is perhaps overlooked at times due to his unassailable capacity as a frontman.
Each contributor’s presence is imperative to the success of Earthling. Producer extraordinaire and self-professed Pearl Jam super-fan Andrew Watt (who has produced for Ozzy Osbourne, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and everyone in between) brings his expertise to the proceedings in the form of sleek production which makes even the most audacious of numbers go down with ease.
Watt’s musical hand is perhaps most noticeable in cuts such as “The Dark,” “Invincible,” and “Long Way,” the latter of which, unsurprisingly, acts as the album’s first single. The reunion of current and former Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chad Smith and Josh Klinghoffer, is a delight to hear, and Klinghoffer’s fluid lead tone in the “Long Way” solo sections recall that of the outro section of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ The Getaway album highlight and first single, “Dark Necessities.”
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Josh Klinghoffer’s role on Earthling, and the guitar-slinger very much acts as the record’s secret weapon. Klinghoffer’s distinctive backing vocals, which crop up with great frequency throughout the record, sit exquisitely well with Vedder’s, rounding out the rougher tonal edges and creating a satisfyingly harmonious blend of timbre. Klinghoffer’s generally underrated guitar work may be the greatest wonder to behold here, however.
The solo section of “Fallout Today” features one of Klinghoffer’s trademark noise solos, as heard in much of his early work with the Chili Peppers on cuts such as “How It Ends” and “Did I Let You Know.” The tone is refined here, however, and almost seems to call back to that of George Harrison. This, melded with some of Klinghoffer’s more spaced-out tendencies on the six-string, create a dichotomy of tone which can come across like a fusion of George Harrison and David Gilmour.
It is possible that Klinghoffer fits so well throughout this album because it is an album of contradictions which manage to find ways to exist in harmony. The guitarist’s experimental leanings paired with his extensive backlog of working funk and alternative concepts, as undoubtedly acquired during his decade as a Red Hot Chili Pepper, perfectly match Vedder’s indisputable energy, as well as his more nuanced, artistic ambitions.
Indeed, the album makes an art of working with rhythmic dynamic, but not in such a blatant way as to bring to mind the classic Nirvana quiet-loud technique. There’s a subtly exercised throughout Earthling in the layering of rhythmic instrumentation, as well as disparate concepts which – at first glance – one might not think should coexist. Reckless punk rockers effectively work in tandem with emotional, down-tempo numbers, as well as alternative cuts like “Power of Right” which benefit greatly from the decidedly 90s rhythm section of Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, the latter of whom Watt has cited as his favorite drummer.
While balancing this broad span of stylistic elements, Earthling also maintains the loose, space-themed framework to which the album’s title makes reference. This is heard on tracks like “Brother the Cloud,” and the record’s bookending cuts, “Invincible” and “On My Way.” Interestingly, the highly ambitious opening track – complete with a Bowie-esque “clear for liftoff!” from Vedder – works to a pronounced climax which, for many artists, would earmark it as an album closer.
“On My Way,” on the other hand, acts as a brief, spacey waltz, circling acoustic guitar chords and quietly bringing the album to a close. Given the contradictory nature of the record as a whole, it is fitting that – after the high voltage punk which permeates much of the project – it would take its bow in such nuanced and understated fashion.
Some of the most gratifying moments on Earthling, however, come in the form of its most high-profile features. Sir Elton John leads the band into “Picture,” marking the first reunion between himself, Smith, and Klinghoffer since their collaboration of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 2016 single, “Sick Love.”
Though Elton John only plays a few solo bars before the other musicians join in, one doesn’t even need that much time to recognize exactly who it is behind the keys. The rollicking piano rhythm leads the band, and there’s an almost ragtime swing to the pronounced shuffle of the song. Elton John gets a surprising amount of mic time here, and it’s clear that this wasn’t simply a phoned-in feature.
The final guest to make an appearance on Earthling is none other than Sir Ringo Starr, who sits in on drums for “Mrs. Mills.” The song is an album highlight not only for its inclusion of one of the greatest drummers of all time, but also for its lyrical and conceptual structure, which act as a testament to Vedder’s indelible knack for song craft.
The tune is a tribute of sorts to an Abbey Road piano which was actually used by the Fab 4, and named for the easy listening singer who’d left it at the studio. Watt acquired a piano of this exact type, which has been accumulating its own impressive musical history since the onset of its residency in the producer’s basement. Vedder, understandably inspired by all this, crafted “Mrs. Mills.” The fearless adaptations of the show tune and music hall proclivities of one Sir Paul McCartney, along with the thematically accommodating arrangement, make the tune one of the most Beatles-sounding songs recorded since the group went their separate ways in 1970.
Vedder is purportedly quite proud of this particular set of lyrics, and with good reason. The wordplay and double entendres implemented in the tale of the piano’s (or perhaps it is a woman?) frequent encounters with men of status are truly impressive. The Mills character always gets the last laugh, however. As, despite any good time which may have occurred, the musicians are always forced to leave her behind as they head for home.
Thematically, Earthling offers no shortage of options from which to choose. Between the various concepts, genre explorations, and features, there is something to be found for just about everyone on this album. The record never feels taxing or overblown, however. This is likely due to an implied, general theme of the album, that of balance.
The sonic variety of Earthling comes off less like a tug of war and more like the passing of a ball. Seemingly disparate elements coming together to create something more substantial than the sum of their parts would be as effective a description as any of this project. Furthermore, the acknowledgment of common ground and what connects people at a base level seems to be a reoccurring lyrical theme throughout the album as well. Given the remarkable results of Earthling as a cohesive project, one can only hope that Vedder might bring back the same crew of ringers for an eventual follow-up.
Eddie Vedder Releases New Album “Earthling” Here’s The Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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