Eddie Vedder has always seemed like a singer inextricably bound to his band. Since the beginnings of Pearl Jam, he has flexed his warm baritone with an intensity or a sensitivity that perfectly matched his fellow musicians’ loose fury and anxious jamming; Vedder’s voice depends on Pearl Jam’s music, and their songs demand his voice. Whenever he has ventured into the wilds of a solo career, he has done so in the least Pearl Jam-y ways possible, whether it was the folkie mandolin musings of “Rise” or the beach-fire serenades of Ukulele Songs. No matter how sparse a song sounded, Vedder’s voice resounded in ways that recalled Pearl Jam. You could tell he was doing his best to tiptoe around the loud rock that defines his main gig.
On his latest solo outing, Earthling, Vedder unapologetically backspaces onto Pearl Jam’s turf with 13 tracks that recall both the band’s punk energy and its mainstream-rock aspirations in a way that feels distinctively Vedderish. It’s his most revealing solo release, since, musically, it feels more like the Vedder we’ve known for 30 years and not a purposeful departure from Pearl Jam.
For the project, he teamed with Andrew Watt, a jack-of-all-trades producer who has proven equally deft at fashioning pop (Miley Cyrus), rap (Post Malone), and rock (Ozzy Osbourne’s surprisingly fun 2020 comeback, Ordinary Man), all while maintaining each artist’s uniqueness. As with Osbourne’s album, Watt assembled a core band for Earthling to help Vedder write the songs, and even though the ensemble features former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and perennial Chili drummer Chad Smith, the results sound nothing like those two musicians’ other band. Instead the group, which includes Watt, complements Vedder’s voice in ways that only Pearl Jam has previously done.
Vedder’s hallmark has always been the way he could sound both confident and vulnerable at the same time — has anyone sung about wanting to explode a neutron bomb more plaintively than Vedder did on Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist”? — and the moments where he hits that balance on Earthling make for the best songs on the record. On “Brother the Cloud,” he grapples with the loss of a loved one (possibly Chris Cornell) as he wrestles with the throes of grief — “Understand it was not easy for my friend,” he sings to anyone listening before later turning to inexplicable anger: “Put your arms around my brother, my friend/Say for me … fuck you … what are friends for?” But the whole thing is disarming since he sounds hopeful and even upbeat throughout the song. On the next song, “Fallout Today,” he parses human fragility, musing on “second chances granted one more time,” before conceding, “We all need to share and shake the pain” — all over a gently melancholic acoustic-guitar ballad. If it weren’t for Watt’s Beach Boys–style harmonies, the song could have easily fit on Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy.
Meanwhile, the heavy riffing of “Power of Right” and “Good and Evil” feel like a more refined take on the grunge of the band’s Vs. as Vedder sounds rejuvenated, howling in time to Smith’s locomotive rhythms. Smith’s drumming even takes lead on “Rose of Jericho,” another hard rocker, with a funky, slightly off-kilter groove that inspires a driving riff and an aggressive screed from Vedder about environmentalism that even cites Henry David Thoreau. It’s the same anger Vedder had about Trump on Pearl Jam’s last album, 2020’s Gigaton, but it’s more personal this time, revealing new sides of the singer with each song.
Several tracks feel like Invisible Man exhibitions of his DNA, as he inhabits the sensibilities of some of his favorite musicians without fully giving himself over to plagiarism. For any other artist, “Long Way” would sound like Tom Petty cosplay with its lush acoustic chords and gentle chorus, nasally dragging out the word “freeeeeway” — the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench even plays organ on the song — but Vedder’s voice, with its rugged, lived-in weariness, makes it his own. Similarly, “The Dark” owes a debt to Bruce Springsteen with its hammering, Max Weinberg–like drumbeat, fuzzy synths, and the promise “I’ll find you in the dark … let me lift you out of the dark,” but Vedder sells it in a way that feel like it’s his own.
Earthling’s guests figure heavily into how Vedder reveals new sides of himself, since most of his reverence comes through in nods and winks rather than fealty. Stevie Wonder plays fluttering harmonica throughout “Try,” an upbeat rockabilly number about forgiveness, and while it’s a scene-stealer, it never distracts from the song. Tench appears here and there throughout the album, usually sweetening the arrangements. And “Mrs. Mills” owes such a debt to the grandiose pomp of Sgt. Pepper that it name-checks Paul McCartney and features Ringo Starr as a guest on drums.
It’s only on “Picture,” a duet with Elton John, where Vedder gives in to his fandom. The track is all Elton-y country schmaltz (and, as with even the best of John’s music, sometimes it’s a little too schmaltzy). But it’s the only moment on Earthling that doesn’t feel distinctly Vedderish, other than in the lyrics, which sing about striving for love and hope. Those lyrics are the song’s only anchor to Earthling’s central theme.
Throughout the album, Vedder uses each song to plead for empathy — the quality that makes earthlings human. On the uplifting album opener, “Invincible,” he sings to listeners that they’re “more than just particles” and that they should feel important, and he bares his soul even more, showing forgiveness, on the final track, “On My Way,” on a virtual duet with his biological father, Edward Severson Jr., a man he was estranged from for most of his life. “When we love, we’re invincible,” Vedder sings, reprising a lyric from the first song, this time wrapping the words around his dad’s voice. It’s a strikingly personal moment for Vedder, the type of vulnerability he has always tilted toward with Pearl Jam. Now that he’s embraced it, he has just raised the stakes for his Pearl Jam bandmates.