Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder's second solo effort is a beautifully intimate collection of love songs, but the experience demands an emotional investment that will limit replay value for the tech-spaz masses. Make no mistake: rather than a gathering of Rock songs stripped to fit an instrumentation concept, this is most definitely a ukulele album, in both spirit and sound. All the trappings associated with such must be fully considered when listening, because the delicate nature of the record's instrument centerpiece doesn't support the weight of high-energy expectation.
Ukulele Songs doesn't offer the slightest hint of a turn down Vedder's familiar Who-tinged Rock alleyways, and Eddie checks his signature activist sentiment at the dock before hitting the island. These are lyrically potent and, often, poignant heart songs through and through, many of which were written during a time of significant transition in his life; Within the past decade, Vedder has divorced his teenage sweetheart, remarried and begun a family. And it clearly shows.
Thus, the PJ frontman shows his most intimate colors as a romantic balladeer in this 16 track collection, but with a running time of under 35 minutes there's little danger of drowning in the sap. Only two songs cross the three minute mark, leaving most impressions soaked in a sense of fleeting, like sand slipping through the fingers.
In a recent Chicago Tribune interview, Vedder explained the ukulele's impact on his songwriting. "I learned so much about music by playing this little, miniature songwriting machine, especially about melody. The motto is less strings more melody. I was able to apply it to whatever I’m trying to write. It’s become part of songwriting for me, the knowledge I gained from hearing the melodies come out, and then applying that to guitar or vocals."
Jammers know "Can't Keep" well as the opening track to PJ's Riot Act, but will delight in hearing the song as it was originally intended. As is the case with certain quieter Vedder compositions, sometimes the full band treatment squeezes the intimate spirit from the song in the Pearl Jam world. It's fully intact here, and thus far easier to envision the setting that much of the record is implied to have sprung from: an isolated island paradise, feet covered in sand, a moment of bliss translated into music. The vigorous strumming suggests an urgency in the proud defiance, his primal wailing at the end a token of free-spirit bliss.
Eddie's known among his peers for vanishing acts, lengthy jaunts to remote island surf spots with the likes of wave god Kelly Slater, where he spends considerable time amongst the waves between campfire creative sessions (as increasingly evidenced through Pearl Jam's catalogue). The consistency of sound on Ukulele Songs allows the listener – if they should permit – to immerse themselves in the romantic tropicalia of the album's origins without a tethering reminder of the swarms of reality.
Among those halfway out the door before the needle drops, there's little defending the teenage-spark affection of a line such as "Sun sets on this ocean / Never once on my devotion" in "Without You". But for the initiated and immersed, the kindest of all sledgehammers hits center chest when he sings "I'll keep on healing all the scars that we've collected from the start / I'd rather this than live without you," through a gorgeously cascading melody, with a naked declaration of warts-and-all grownup acceptance and true love rising through the ruins of yesteryear's agonies. Prepare to hear this played at many future weddings between those who've gone enough rounds with life to empathize.
Seductive, crushing allegiance in sonic fluidity, "Satellite" was written from the perspective of Lorri Davis Echols, steadfast wife of Damien Echols of the controversially incarcerated West Memphis 3. It’s just one of several that Vedder debuted during two solo performances in the early Spring of 2002, alongside "You’re True," "Goodbye" and "Broken Heart," but among those decade-old gems, Satellite stands clear as the most captivatingly majestic, a heartwrenching testament to unwavering devotion in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. The doubled vocal chorus is a burst of rich color, Vedder's self-harmonizing tenor blanketing the moment like so many stars in an island sky.
If Satellite is best from those early debuts, "You're True" is easily the most transformed, with a completely new second verse, bridge and rhythm shift. The track suffers as a result of the changed lyrics, but maintains its gorgeously melodic uke exit. Meanwhile, the overdue acknowledgement of betrayal in "Sleeping By Myself" leaves a hole within, a strong competitor for heartbreaker of the record against the sad sendoff of Goodbye ("And for what feels like the first time / I don't know where you are tonight / I guess that this is goodbye").
Ukulele Songs is littered with non-musical moments as well, glimpses into personal instants or subtle mood manipulations – the Zippo-flick cigarette light before "Goodbye," for instance, or Eddie's incredulous laugh at the "Longing to Belong" onset. The eight-second "Hey Fahkah" consists entirely of Ed messing up a chord, laughing (perhaps drunkenly) to himself and uttering an alien grunt. But crashing waves and footsteps walking through guide us into (and out of) "Light Today," a short revelation built on a circling, simple riff. It's a mood-builder, a short trip down to the water for a moment of revelation before returning to the fire.
Glen Hansard works a fantastic accompanying harmony on Sleepless Nights, a yearner we're sure to see at the PJ20 festival weekend. It's powerful, but outshined by the overdose of adorable that is "Tonight You Belong to Me," a reworking of the classic song from The Jerk, with Vedder as Steve Martin and Cat Power as Bernadette Peters. No trumpet solo this time around, however – but the magic is undiminished.
Ukulele Songs won't be received well in Rock circles, and younger Pearl Jam fans without personal reference will find themselves divided by the sounds of a man in midlife stride, embracing his mortality and wearing his heart on his sleeve. But for those of us who know what to expect, or have had their journey thus far lit in some way by Vedder's more personal compositions, it's a long-awaited moonlit gem.
CraveOnline Rating: 8 out of 10