This is the year of Pearl Jam’s twenty-year anniversary. But, from the sound of this nakedly-emotional album, Eddie’s got more than the band on his mind: he feels the undulations of love, all of the shifting, rollercoaster textures of emotion that it comes with– and not simply romantic love. This album’s exactly what it sounds like– one man, one uke, with a few guest vocal and instrumental features here and there. And it works because the ukulele is a quiet, patient instrument, shifting to the desires of the musician holding it. So patient, in fact, that it’s been waiting since Eddie acquired it in a Hawaiian convenience store in 1990. The originals on this album– twelve of them, accompanied by ukulele classics such as “More than You Know,” a 1929 song by Rose & David –have been in the works ever since.
I suspect Eddie turned to the ukelele often, particularly when in need of respite from Pearl Jam. He says in an interview, “I think for some reason it might be more difficult to tell a story in a band song,” likely because of fan expectations and compositional conventions. Compare the pulsing album opener “Can’t Sleep” with the original version, which appears on 2002′s “Riot Act.” The ukulele seems to allow Eddie more space for personal, confessional songwriting. While Eddie claims the songs on his second solo album are all works of fiction, I suspect they are about his wife and children. The easy learning curve for the instrument– Eddie’s not trying to push it to its aesthetic limits or anything– as well as its sunny, melody-oriented timbre, allows Eddie to focus entirely on the songwriting.
Pearl Jam songs are essentially exercises in emotional exorcism, but the intensity of the emotion here is more subdued. This actually works to Eddie’s advantage, because his restraint allows him to express a wider range of feelings here. The honesty is endearing, and it’s clear Eddie wants to give off a vibe of bedroom production– “Goodbye” opens with the click of a zippo; “Longing to Belong,”featuring Chris Worwick’s gentle, understated cello, begins with a cell phone interruption; “Hey Fahkah,” is a blooper track, Eddie fumbling with a chord and swearing. “Waving Palms” is simply a short, pretty instrumental ditty which goes nowhere, emanating a casual, jam feel.
The sound of the ukulele never quite allows Eddie to sink into full-on agony; there’s even a redemptive quality to some of the heartbreak. On the surfer’s lullaby “Light Today,” Eddie croons: “The silent scream that we’re apart/ I dare to dream for there you are/ I bleed, but I won’t break” over a melody that reminds me a bit of Nick Drake. The mismatch that sometimes occurs between the bright uke and Eddie’s forlorn voice, best exemplified by the opener, also keeps some of the songs here from veering into melodrama, such as “Goodbye,” though the inverted climax is a classy touch– at the end and emotional peak of the song, his vocals become a plaintive whisper, and it’s highly affecting.
Indeed, Eddie’s voice exhibits impressive range here. Consider the baritone of the pragmatic “Broken Heart” (“I’m alright, it’s alright/ it’s just one broken heart”), which turns gravelly on album closer “Dream A Little Dream” (I think the Tom Waits version is still better, though it’s a commendable effort on Eddie’s part). The moments where Eddie double-tracks his own voice, such as on “Satellite,” don’t work that much for me, sounding more muddy than anything else, though the duets– “Sleepless Nights” with Glen Hansard, a 1960 song by Bryant and Bryant; “Tonight You Belong to Me” with Cat Power, everything about the track deliciously sweet –work remarkably well, bringing out unexpected qualities in Eddie’s voice. I’m particularly impressed by the Cat Power duet. It’s the track here which most wish were longer. Only two songs here break past the three-minute mark. And while those two, “Without You” with its meditative scar-healing, and “You’re True,” a rollicking, lovedrunk, victorious song, are great, I do wish “Tonight You Belong to Me” wasn’t such a fleeting moment. Eddie’s voice is at its sweetest, lacking any grit, and almost doe-eyed.
The album is mercifully short, about 35 minutes in length. Clearly Eddie is aware that the minimal arrangement he’s working with can take its toll on the listener, and he does a good job with the sequencing of tracks, making sure that it moves rapidly between different sentiments. But the emotional range on the album doesn’t fully stymie the looming monotony, and nothing really changes the fact that these are all, at base, chord-based strummers. That being said, in small doses it’s almost revelatory, simply for the fact of hearing one of the defining voices of rock shift gears so drastically. All in all, it’s a tiny, remarkable pleasure to listen to, though not always all the way through. He’s no brilliant ukulele songwriter, but certainly Eddie is to be commended simply for not veering into gimmickry, for maintining his emotional honesty and in fact escalating it with the help of this humble instrument. Hats off!