It happens to us all: the slow march of time. The burnout. The difficulty of getting quite the same level of excitement that was a part of youthful reckless abandon becomes ever more apparent. No one knows it better than Eddie Vedder, who has to put in twice as much effort these days to get anywhere near the fire that made him scale multiple stories of scaffolding and risk his life multiple times over. In that way, his new music is at a constant crossroads of fighting the staleness of age and embracing it with open arms. That conflict has never been stronger than it is on his new solo album, Earthling.
Earthling works, but just barely. There’s nothing new or fresh or even particularly exciting on the album, and its 13 tracks all fly by in such a quick rush that the nearly 50-minute album sounds like one long song. They all have the same production gloss, the same uplifting spirit, and the same lack of edge. When ‘Good and Evil’ starts with what sounds like a broken musical box, it’s easily the most interesting part of the album.
The real question that Earthling poses is whether Vedder has now permanently evolved into flaccid dad rock. Not all dad rock has to be flaccid, to be fair: I’m still a pretty big Foo Fighters fan, after all. But Vedder no longer has the anger or frustration that was so potent on the best Pearl Jam records. When that’s gone, what good is having fuzzy guitars when they don’t connect at full volume?
Vedder admirably tries: ‘Rose of Jericho’ and ‘Power of Right’ attempt to reach those scuzzy highs, with the latter song shoehorning in a hamfisted political message to boot. In fact, ‘Power of Right’ is probably the greatest illustration of Earthling‘s major fault: Vedder’s heart is clearly in the right place, but there’s no real fury behind it anymore.
That’s why I found myself gravitating to the softer songs. Vedder already has an album full of ukulele tunes, and he’s currently living off the coast of Hawaii, so he has no problem chilling out. That’s what feels like the more honest side of Vedder these days, and that’s why songs like ‘Fallout Today’, ‘The Haves’, and the jaunty Elton John duet ‘Picture’ are the album’s highlights. Hearing Vedder preach on the slower songs actually has a better chance of letting his messages be heard. If the high energy songs don’t connect, it’s the softer ones that do.
But it seems unlikely for anyone with a relationship to Vedder’s music to have a sudden change of heart about their personal politics thanks to Earthling. Vedder has been one of the most progressive rock and rollers of the past three decades, fighting against monopolies and for causes like environmentalism, gun control, and a women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Earthling is the textbook example of preaching to the choir: if some of these messages surprise you, then you clearly haven’t been listening to any of his words in the last 30 years.
All of this is to say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Earthling. Vedder is ageing gracefully and his music is doing the same. There’s still something undeniably charming about the music he’s making, and for the audience who adores him, a new record doesn’t have to be world-changing to be good. For grunge’s last true survivor, it’s a small miracle that he’s still up there doing anything at all. But the truth is that if you’re not brand loyal, you won’t find anything in Earthling.