Pearl Jam became internationally famous within a year of releasing their debut album, Ten. Sounds like a blessing, but that immediate notoriety had the unfortunate side effect of ensuring that front man Eddie Vedder’s blustery, awkward twenties would be fully documented. So to some, he’ll always be the guy the who was prone to awkward personal confessions in odd venues (like the Grammys), who always carried a humorless air of affected tragedy around him, and who initiated that brawny vocal style that encouraged macho dickweeds like Scott Stapp and Aaron Lewis to pick up their pens and start chronicling their feelings in song.
But there was always an old soul under there. Vedder gravitated to timeless legends like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Younger Vedder may have been climbing lighting fixtures to get your attention, but once he had it, he just wanted to slow down and play you some songs — like his heroes. That desire has only increased as he entered his forties. So while it might be surprising or incongruous to some that Vedder has released an album written and performed entirely on a ukulele, those who’ve been watching him grow up are probably not the least bit shocked about it.
Just as predictably, Ukulele Songs is a gentle and sweet-natured affair, stocked with romantic originals and lovingly reproduced covers. It’s a fantastic showcase for Vedder’s sonorous baritone, particularly on the wandering “Broken Heart” and smoky rendition of the parlor classic “Dream a Little Dream”.
Opener “Can’t Keep,” which first existed as a ukulele song before Pearl Jam beefed it up for 2002’s Riot Act, gets the album off to a misleading running start, though this version is considerably more fleet-footed than Pearl Jam’s. From there, Vedder takes a more tender approach, handling the business of heartache with grace and an earned wisdom. For all of the broken relationships chronicled on Ukulele Songs, and there are a lot (“Sleeping By Myself,” “Goodbye,” “Sleepless Nights”), this is a record devoid of bitterness, or even sadness. It drifts sweetly along like an extended lullaby.
Of course, this does mean that the record is short on variety. Save for some cello on the absolutely gorgeous “Longing to Belong” and a couple of guest spots (Chan Marshall of Cat Power on “Tonight You Belong to Me”, Glen Hansard on “Sleepless Nights”), Ukulele Songs is what the title promises and little more. This has led a few reviewers to complain that this thirty-five minute record is a slog, which is more than a little ridiculous. Ukulele Songs is simply an uncomplicated and effective outlet for Vedder’s ever-maturing outlook, and it’s a winning testament to the joys of slowing down.