As such an intrinsic part of Pearl Jam, it is often difficult to think of Eddie Vedder as a solo artist. Indeed, his solo discography is not the largest, with two soundtrack recordings and 2011’s Ukulele Songs – the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin collection of campfire songs – it does not offer the output you may expect from such an influential figure in rock history. However, Earthling offers Vedder’s best solo work, seeing him remain on more familiar territory while still managing to explore new ground.
In creating the album, Vedder teamed up with young super-producer Andrew Watt, who has worked with Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, and Ozzy Osbourne, among many others. The pair set about building an all-star backing band with Watt playing bass. Current and former Red Hot Chilli Peppers Chad Smith and Josh Klinghoffer feature. Other guest appearances come from Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Ringo Starr. Vedder’s daughters, Olivia and Harper, are also credited with providing backing vocals across the album.
The recent production influences are immediately noticeable through ‘Invincible’, the upbeat opener that channels 80s pop-rock. Often noted and parodied for his serious demeanour in the early 90s, Vedder introduces his more playful side by asking, “Are you ready…ready for a bit of Echo Victor?” (phonetic alphabet for EV) before the song takes off. Lyrically it provides an uplifting, positive outlook - with the Evanston-born singer affirming, “When we love, we’re invincible” – themes that are carried through the album.
It is inevitable that, whenever a singer of a well-known band pursues a solo career, comparisons will be made between their solo output and their work with the band, and speculation always arises as to which songs may have been outtakes from band sessions. If ‘Invincible’ saw him utilising a different sound, Vedder quickly finds himself back on classic rock soil with ‘Power of Right’, a song that would feel at home on any of the last three Pearl Jam albums. Another such example is ‘Brother the Cloud’, one of the record’s more emotive outpourings, which sounds like it has been lifted straight from Backspacer. While, later on, the record, the frenetic, punk-infused ‘Good and Evil’ could easily slot on any of the Seattle band’s records stemming from 1994’s Vitalogy, the same is true of ‘Rose of Jericho’, a guitar-laced rocker that feels built for a roaring Mike McCready solo.
The album's middle section sees Vedder offer songs that are more in line with his previous solo work, providing love-centric ballads and upbeat soft-rock songs. Pop-rock again comes to the fore with ‘Fallout Today’, which sees a continuation of his talent for creating often-troubled female characters through song while reminding “We all need to share and shake the pain”. ‘The Dark’ sees him yearn for someone, promising “I’ll find you in the dark”, set to a backing of up-tempo guitars that create a buoyant atmosphere. While the piano and acoustic guitar-based ‘The Haves’ finds Vedder thankful and reaffirming his love, “All of the haves, they have Not got half of what we got”, to round off a section of the album that does not quite take advantage of the talents on offer from his new backing band.
Away from the obvious Pearl Jam shaped songs, several other influences are evident throughout the record. Lead single ‘Long Way’ could easily be confused as a Tom Petty offering. Clearly inspired by his late friend, the song even features former Heartbreaker, Benmont Tench on organ. Elton John provides piano and vocals on ‘Picture’, sharing lead vocal responsibilities between verses before complimenting Vedder’s vocals through the hopeful chorus. While, ‘Mrs Mills’ is a Beatles-esque, piano-driven number that has drums by Ringo Starr. Another star guest appearance comes on ‘Try’, with Stevie Wonder playing the harmonica on the breakneck speed track in which Vedder pleads, “I will try, try. Baby, I will try.”
The album's most surprising and emotive guest appearance comes on the final track, ‘On My Way’, which features Vedder’s late father Edward Severson Jr, crooning “I’ll be on my way” from a tape that was only discovered a few years ago. Vedder joins his father, harmonising “Took the long way” to providing a fitting end to an uplifting album that looks to the future whilst acknowledging the past.
Earthling finds Vedder at his loosest, freewheeling through a variety of styles to provide a fun, positive album. Although it threatens to lull midway through, Vedder powers through to mark the highpoint of his all-too-narrow solo discography. When comparing it to his soundtrack work and Ukulele Songs, it feels as though this could be the true beginning of his solo journey.