For a moment back there it looked like we’d lost Eddie Vedder to the ukulele. The Pearl Jam singer began learning to play this most divisive of stringed instruments sometime in the mid-90s, initially as a joke. By the time of his 2011 solo album, Ukulele Songs, things had become serious. One of the most distinctive voices in rock had become the grunge George Formby.
Vedder’s third solo album proper is no less surprising, but for entirely different reasons. Where Ukulele Songs seemed designed to keep the singer’s A-list fame at arm’s length, Earthling finds him fully leaning into it.
This is a mainstream rock record by a man who has spent a career signalling his discomfort with being a mainstream rock star, a set of songs that willingly embrace the middle ground. The list of guest appearances alone reads like a Prince’s Trust Charity gig: Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ringo Starr all chip in.
That’s not to say Earthling is a bad album. Far from it. With Ozzy Osbourne/Miley Cyrus producer and all-round man-of-the-moment Andrew Watt in his corner, Vedder seems to relish being free of the expectations that come with the day job.
Powered by that black-coffee baritone, opening song Invincible is simultaneously uplifting and breezy, sounding like Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill relocated to the Pacific Northwest. Long Way wears its influences even more brazenly on its sleeve – with its big, open chords and rolling-down-the-freeway sentiments, it sounds like a great lost Tom Petty song.
There are moments that sound superficially like Pearl Jam, not least Brother The Cloud with its soaring chorus, and the breathless one-two of Rose Of Jericho and harmonica-blasted Try, both of which call back to the garage-rock energy that powered parts of 1993’s Vitalogy.
Of the guests, Wonder and Starr do their respective things unobtrusively (the bulk of the album’s drum duties are covered Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
By contrast, the Elton John duet, Picture, is a stinker: a soul-sappingly jaunty song that’s a couple of happy-claps away from something you’d hear at a trendy Christian church service on a Sunday morning. Much better is the Sgt Pepper-lite psychedelia of Mrs Mills (sadly not a tribute to the late Cockney musical hall pianist of the same name).
Earthling isn’t going to send Pearl Jam fans running, but Vedder has avoided playing directly to the gallery. It’s strident without being brash, starry without being pompous, middle of the road without being bland. And not a ukulele in earshot.