Vulnerability and Grandeur
Eddie Vedder’s third solo album, Earthling (11 February 2022; Seattle Surf/Republic Records), finds him again struggling with what it means to be human; the amazing thing is that he keeps finding new ways to authentically express it.
When Vedder auditioned for Pearl Jam his lyric for Alive contained the now famous words: “While you were sittin’ home alone at age thirteen, your real daddy was dyin’, sorry you didn’t see him, but I’m glad we talked,” and now here he is referencing his estranged father again, but this time he is doing it in an extraordinary way. A few years ago Vedder came across a tape of his father singing, something which he had never heard before and, using the wonders of modern technology, decided to harmonise with him on a song. So as the album closes he duets with his late parent, Edward Severson Jr., while crooning “I’ll be on my way”. It’s breathtaking in both its vulnerability and grandeur, whichever way you look at it.
Vedder’s own incredible life story has seen him become a rock icon and mix with ‘the stars’, while remaining very relatable himself. He also balances these seemingly contradictory forces in an innovative way towards the end of this album by dueting with Elton John on Painting, and collaborating with Ringo Starr on Mrs. Mills, Stevie Wonder on Try and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ organist Benmont Tench on the lead single, and standout track, Long Way. These songs might be taken as pastiches of the music that these famous musicians have made in the past, were it not obvious that Vedder is paying reverence to them; even going so far as to name-check Paul McCartney on the Sgt. Pepper-sounding Mrs Mills. These artists’s music comprise a major part of the soundtrack to Vedder’s life and it is lovely how he employs them towards the end of this record, just before he returns to pay homage to his father.
Other well-known names who feature on both the album and on the associated live performances include Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer; Jane’s Addiction’s Chris Chaney; guitarist Glen Hansard and Grammy Award-winning producer and musician Andrew Watt (Ozzy Osbourne, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Post Malone). In another reminder that Vedder is also like ‘your mate next door’, he includes his daughters, Olivia and Harper Vedder on background vocals.
Earthling kicks off with the rocking Invincible, which in its references to overcoming human frailties, sets the tone for what is to come. “Now there’s smoke on the horizon, And the clouds are looking violent, There’s a future in need of a frame, Compass spinning in my brain,” Vedder intones. The line “When we love…we’re invincible…” is both an opening and closing message, as it reprises at the end of the album. The next song, Power of Right, maintains the energy, which listeners are going to need as they head into the darker material.
Out of the next bunch of songs incorporating Long Way, Brother the Cloud, Fallout Today and The Dark, I am going to focus on perhaps the most moving, Brother The Cloud. This sad song seems to reference Vedder’s half-brother Chris Mueller who died in a 2016 climbing accident and his Seattle soul mate, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who took his own life in 2017. “It’s about a few people,” Vedder says before a live performance in Newark on 6 February 2022, before singing in a beguiling mix of love, anger, and grief: “Put your arms around my brother, my friend, Say for me … fuck you … what are friends for?”
At that gig Andrew Watt employs a Fender Strat as he plays alongside his childhood hero. “Getting a chance to sit in the same room with him and talk music, it’s like an exam I’ve been studying for my whole life,” said Watt. “When he gets up on the microphone, it’s insane. I’ve never seen someone give so much emotion to a vocal before; brings you to tears.”
As said, On My Way beautifully closes an album that has touched on themes of fatherhood, loss, vulnerability and glory. Perhaps most impressively of all, however, is that Vedder continues to address these issues, both big and small, in a thoroughly authentic way.