It’s sort of an asinine idea: 16 tracks of ukulele songs. But for some reason, Eddie Vedder thought otherwise. On Ukulele Songs, Vedder’s first solo foray since 2007’s lean-yet-flawless Into the Wild soundtrack, the Pearl Jam frontman cuts loose on the island favorite. But why? In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Vedder explains that the whole project “started as a writing exercise” and admits “at first it was kind of a joke.” With a song like the tenderly spoken “Longing to Belong”, it’s hard to imagine anyone laughing. Yet, things change after three or four songs.
For such an insular instrument (literally and metaphorically, come to think of it), Vedder’s right in calling the album an exercise. It’s crazy to think anyone could write a full album of songs solely on the ukulele, let alone 16 tracks. It’s too limited in sound. But that’s what the scruffy songwriter intended. In the same interview, Vedder stresses how he “wanted it to be the one sound,” relating the writing to a personal “challenge.” Originally, he aimed for 11 or 12 songs…so, you get the sense he went a tad overboard.
But not all of it’s his own. In addition to original material and a straightforward opening cut of Pearl Jam’s “Can’t Keep” (originally off of 2002’s Riot Act), Vedder handpicked a few covers. On his take of Billy Rose’s and Edward Eliscu’s often covered “More Than You Know”, Vedder coos, “Oh how I’d cry, if you got tired and said goodbye,” while his strumming picks up this rather furious pace. Plenty of singers have crossed paths with this song – Billie Holiday ring a bell? – but Vedder sounds so earnest and so sincere that he claims it as his own. That’s the thing, though. His mist-drenched vocals work well with the Hawaiian vibes the uke sends out. It’s just…sometimes enough’s enough.
And that’s the core problem within Ukulele Songs. On their own, each of the 16 songs are mildly admirable. Altogether, they’re incredibly grating. In fact, if you weren’t paying close enough attention, you’d be convinced the same song had been spinning for nearly 35 minutes. It just keeps going, and there’s little there to hint otherwise. The transition between “Broken Home” and “Satellite” is minimal; the same goes for single “Longing to Belong” and “You’re True”. The only difference is that on the latter two, Vedder places some odd eight-second knee slapper outtake and dubs it “Hey Fahkah”. So, in future listens, there’s that break in the wave to consider.
Other considerations include rough charmer “Tonight You Belong to Me”, which Vedder sings alongside Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. This one dates back to 1926, but most will remember it from Steve Martin’s 1976 classic The Jerk, when the traveling funny man was joined by Bernadette Peters for the cinematic duet. It’s not as affecting here, but Vedder and Marshall complement each other well. It’s just too short to really take much notice, and a tad too late in the tracklisting to make a difference.
So, with such little variety, Ukulele Songs becomes a chore to sit through. Because of this, you’re unlikely to revisit it. If anything, it’ll come in handy on future playlists, where listeners can pick and pull for their “great post-college roadtrip.” Granted, anything off Into the Wild will suffice for that endeavor, but tracks like “Longing to Belong” or the candlelit “Sleepless Nights” (feat. Glen Hansard) will do some justice, too. Though, in all likelihood, you probably won’t need this given all the Pearl Jam-related hoopla out there this year. But for Vedder enthusiasts, well, the cover’s pretty, right?