When a long-established musical titan releases a new album, the results can go a number of ways. The best late-career efforts—Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Bowie’s Blackstar—can be astounding tectonic shifts, illuminating unexplored corners of their creators’ sound while also reaffirming what made the artist matter in the first place. On the opposing end of the spectrum, you have Elton John’s Lockdown Sessions and Foo Fighters’ Medicine at Midnight—embarrassing turns from folks who stopped caring decades ago about “breaking new creative ground” and seem content to coast on their fans’ adoration while lazily rehashing their greatest hits. (In many cases, the rehashing can be quite literal—see John and Dua Lipa’s clunky “Rocket Man”-aping team-up “Cold Heart.”)
Eddie Vedder is 57 years old. He’s a fair distance removed from the angry, sexily brooding, Ticketmaster-decrying young man who helped bring Pearl Jam’s sound to the masses—who once scrawled PRO-CHOICE on his arm in black marker during an MTV Unplugged performance of “Porch.” His days as a bonafide hitmaker have long faded into the rearviewmirror. He’s a twice-married father of two. He’s BFFs with the likes of Cameron Crowe and Sean Penn. He is, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys working in music today. However, “nice” only gets you so far in terms of musical results, and Vedder’s latest solo disc Earthling doesn’t quite succeed or fail, instead delivering a disappointingly mixed bag.
Opening track “Invincible” lays bare many of the issues with Earthling—chief among them the watered-down production of Andrew Watt, whose resume includes work for Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. Watt pitches the songs big—wailing guitar licks, thundering drum beats—and they’re sure to sound great when Vedder belts them to a crowded arena, but on record, they suffer from a lack of kinetic energy.
Vedder’s signature growl, though sapped slightly by the passage of time, remains a remarkable instrument, and he’s still an above-average songwriter to boot. Yet despite his immense conviction, he can’t quite sell this series of withered platitudes calling for humanity to unite in troubled times (“Can you hear?/Are we clear?/Cleared for liftoff, takeoff/We’re making reverberations,” he octave-yells like the Imagine Dragons guy).
Vedder’s music has always aimed for a sort of secular spirituality, but “Invincible,” with its chiming guitar and ahhhh chorus, veers dangerously close to contemporary Christian anthem territory. You can almost picture ol’ Eddie’s long hair and flannel tee flowing in the wind as he proclaims the song from a high mountaintop—under a lemon-yellow sun, perhaps, arms raised in a “V,” while the bored-to-death lie in pools of their own drool below.
It’s clear from the diluted heartland-rock backdrops and Killers-lite synths populating most of Earthling that Vedder wants to position himself as a sort of alternative answer to Bruce Springsteen. (Appropriately, Amazon Music commemorated the album’s release with a fawning filmed conversation between Vedder and the Bossman himself.) To take that comparison further, EV, in a rather clumsy and naked ploy for continued “edginess,” peppers track after track with everyone’s favorite curse word: “You pulled the trigger, you’re fucking sick!” “Oh, look at you dressed up as hunters/Like some fucked-up Halloween!” “Fuck the past or you’ll fuck your future…a fucking Hoover!”
Unless you’re in charge of labeling explicit content on Apple Music, this kind of prodigious F-bombing is no more convincing here than it was when Bruce did it on latter-day records like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. Try as he might, Vedder is about as good as emulating E Street as Jon Bon Jovi and co. Nor does he do himself any favors by putting OG Heartbreaker Benmont Tench in charge of keyboard flavor on the Damn the Torpedoes-reject-sounding “Long Way.” Compare this bland mimicry to the ballsy experimentation of Pearl Jam’s mid-‘90s run, and Earthling can’t help but come up lacking.
Like Springsteen, Vedder is also an outspoken liberal, and his lyrics here often find him endeavoring to heal his nation, more divided than ever amid the throes of post-Trumpism and global pandemic. Someone should’ve told him that empty words from rich establishment Democrats seldom solve much of anything. Indeed, saying stuff like “It’s a gift to share and shake the pain” (“Fallout Today”) and “We all could use some redemption/We all fail in the face of perfection” (“The Dark”) makes the Rock Haller seem more than a bit out of touch, as if he’s become the establishment he once purported to stand against. Drippy piano ballad “The Haves,” meanwhile, makes a play for tenderness while also attempting a sly bit of commentary on class disparity (“All of the haves, they have not/Not got half of what we got”). It mostly just succeeds in making Vedder sound like Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik.
The record picks up a surprising amount of steam in its back half, as we hear Vedder start to break free from the diet-Springsteen mold. “Good and Evil” and “Rose of Jericho” are the kind of urgent, uptempo rockers you might expect to hear him perform with his meal-ticket band; they could pass as outtakes from PJ’s underrated 2020 LP Gigaton. And Sir Elton John, that unflappable spotlight-hog—who, for all his faults, has settled nicely into his lower register in recent years—brings just enough bluesy honky-tonk flair to rollicking duet “Picture” to make the track an unexpected highlight.
Indeed, the most remarkable thing about this record is its stacked roster of special guests. On top of the aforementioned Tench and John, a decent chunk of the disc is co-written and performed by a pair of Red Hot Chili Peppers—guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and drummer Chad Smith. Stevie Wonder’s honking harmonica serves as the driving force behind barnburner “Try.” Even half of the surviving Fab Four (Ringo) swings by to back up all the strings and horns on the charming Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour pastiche “Mrs. Mills.”
It’s commendable for Vedder to seek to make Earthling a celebration of his rock idols, and the project was obviously born of a desire to kick back and have fun in-studio with all those legends. But with Vedder’s own distinctive voice lost in the ensuing shuffle, it amounts to little more than 48 minutes of musical dress-up. Granted, there are junctures where said voice shines through beautifully—“Brother the Cloud,” his genuinely moving tribute to late friend and collaborator Chris Cornell, would’ve fit comfortably on 1998’s Yield—but these moments prove few and far between (all the legal halls of shame…yeah!). Closer “On My Way”’s slow but steady fade into the ether couldn’t be a more apt analogy for Vedder’s latest effort—an indifferent footnote in the career of one of modern music’s most dynamic performers.