How do grungers age?
There’s not really a blueprint. A genre — perhaps unfairly, though not without cause — typecast as maladjusted, gloomy, and self-destructive, many of the bands from the 1990s alternative boom opted to burn out, if not fade away, with many-a-frontmen checking out from the world altogether in the midst of their prime.
In 2022, with Kurt, Layne, and Chris gone, Pearl Jam stand alone as the last of grunge’s big four, and Eddie Vedder has been thrust — again — into the spotlight as the spokesman of a club all his own.
While not as tortured as Cobain, Vedder was never exactly a willing participant in punk rock’s mainstream moment. Though more musically accessible than Nirvana, Pearl Jam pushed back against fame in their own ways, from refusing to make music videos in the MTV era to engaging in a highly-publicized battle with Ticketmaster back when $20 seemed like too much for a rock show.
But it’s not 1994 anymore, and rock is hardly the reigning musical genre. Vedder is no longer a young man slipping a petulant “fuck off” into his performances on Saturday Night Live, at once playing the fame game and raging against it. He’s become a rock elder.
What do you do when the dust settles? When you achieve unthinkable, suffocating fame for making angsty rock in your 20s, what kind of music do you make in your relatively quiet 50s?
Earthling, Vedder’s latest solo album, resolves to answer that question. In many ways, it straddles multiple eras: In its slowest moments, Vedder embraces the paths of the elders before him, jumping into Americana and blues. At other times, the music is more familiar, writhing with the intensity that made its maker famous. Even then, however, Vedder assures us he’s moving forward, dressing his rock songs with all the fixings of modern production. In doing so, Earthling (out February 11th) plants itself firmly in this moment, a trial-and-error soundtrack to one man’s maturation.
“Invincible” opens the album with light keys and acoustic guitar, as Vedder assumes the role of a sort of space rocketeer. “Are we clear? Cleared for liftoff?” Vedder chants, as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith (just one of many big names on Earthling‘s credits, which also cites Josh Klinghoffer, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Ringo Starr) pounds an intensifying beat. “Are we affirmative? No negatory!” the singer exclaims.
This airiness permeates Earthling, which often prefers to uplift rather than incite. Sure, teenage angst has paid off well, but when you’re lucky enough to grow old, sometimes you’d rather focus on the positive. It’s a healthy position, but it doesn’t always land. Wonder plays a charismatic harmonica line on “Try,” but the song is so upbeat that the contribution sounds more like a cartoonish kazoo than a soulful blues harp.
This corniness tends to let up when Vedder retreats to his heavier roots. “Rose of Jericho” pogos with a zig-zag riff and an off-kilter vocal meter, while hand claps and dinging piano accentuate the guitar crunch of “Power of Right.” Better still is “Good and Evil,” a quick-spitted cast-off of class privilege.
Where the heavily processed guitar in the “Power of Right” at times feels canned, “Good and Evil” soars with authentic ferocity. “Get some sleep/ I hope you dream your own death tonight,” Vedder snarls, describing a “safari scene” of hunters (the Trump sons?) who shoot big game for fun. “I wake up with forgiveness every day in my heart/ But for you I have not got any, dear.”
Dreams are a common theme across Earthling, as Vedder juxtaposes the possibilities of the unconscious with the harsh realities of life. “Brother the Cloud,” the artist’s ode to his lost brother, is the album’s clear standout, as reverb-laden guitar and searching, melancholy bass offer the project’s clearest, most immediate melody.
“I searched the sky for a glimpse of his blue eyes, and there I find his image in the clouds,” Vedder sings. Yet his brother remains just out of grasp. “These are but dreams, as sad as it seems,” he belts. “I’m always wide awake.”
While Wonder’s cameo proves disappointing, and Smith’s and Klinghoffer’s — cowriters and studio musicians on nearly all of Earthling’s 13 tracks — go unnoticed, John and Starr’s contributions fare better, and also make the case for Vedder’s detour from hard rock. John and Vedder duet in the bluegrass number “Picture,” where jazzy piano trills over acoustic guitar. “If we let the darkness of these times break us that would truly be the crime,” John sings, before Vedder promises to “ease your troubled mind.”
It’s certainly an unexpected turn for the singer, but it proves more entertaining than “Long Way” and “The Haves,” the equally optimistic — but musically tame — Americana ballads Vedder released as Earthling‘s singles. Acoustic instrumentation can be affecting, “Picture” affirms, but only when there’s energy behind it.
Starr, meanwhile, appears on penultimate track “Mrs. Mills,” a quirky ode to a red light dancer. With climbing piano and the Beatle on drums, the song offers a sort-of Sgt. Peppers spin on Beyonce’s “Six Inch,” as Vedder sings admiringly of the titular character performing “in the shadows of a disco neon glow.” “No one takes a Mrs. Mills home,” he asserts, because “no one’s born to feel like they are owned.”
From “Daughter” to “Better Man,” Vedder has long sung tales of complex, strong-willed women. But with its cinematic, orchestral ending, “Mrs. Mills” offers a grand new addition to Vedder’s deep feminist canon. Another head scratcher, for sure, but if the artist intends to stray from straight-ahead rock in his middle period, the untread waters of these unexpected genres may be more rewarding than your run-of-the-mill, feel-good singalong.
“Fuck the past, or you’ll fuck your future,” Vedder proclaims in “Power of Right.” Such is the mantra for Earthling. Not everything he tries sticks, but the attempts assure us he’ll keep going. When you’re the last of your kind, what else can you do?
Catch Eddie Vedder on tour; tickets are available via Ticketmaster.