Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs arrives amid a flurry of commemorative activity for Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary, including a Cameron Crowe documentary, a two-day festival, and album reissues. Ukulele Songs is another archival effort of sorts, collecting songs Vedder recorded on his own (and occasionally performed live) over the past 10 years. But it strikes a different note from the retrospective frenzy currently going in the Pearl Jam camp: Vedder’s record feels like a snapshot of its creator in 2011. The Eddie Vedder of 1991 certainly wouldn’t have released a record so melancholic and modest, where the penultimate track is a sweetly whispered take on the old standard “Tonight You Belong To Me” (sung in duet with Chan Marshall of Cat Power), which winks knowingly at Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters’ wistful version from The Jerk.
Calling Ukulele Songs a middle-aged-man record inevitably sounds like a putdown, but Vedder has long been an old soul, gravitating to legendary mentors like Neil Young and Mike Watt, people gifted with the inner assuredness that eluded him as a young man. On Ukulele Songs, Vedder finally sounds similarly at ease with himself, taming his grunge growl into a wise, warm croon on the quietly devastating “Sleeping By Myself,” the album’s most essential diamond in the rough.
Along with the duet with Glen Hansard on the Everly Brothers’ “Sleepless Nights” and a reworking of Pearl Jam’s “Can’t Keep,” “Sleeping By Myself” forms an appealing 3 a.m.-with-a-bottle-of-wine EP surrounded by pleasant but samey filler tracks at the heart of Ukulele Songs. One habit Vedder hasn’t left behind from his youth is overkill; at 16 songs, Ukulele Songs stretches the limited instrumentation and Vedder’s threadbare melodies too thin. (Imagine Pete Townshend making every track on Who By Numbers sound like “Blue, Red, And Grey,” and doubling the track list.) But Ukulele Songs finds Vedder in a good place—content but not satisfied, comfortable with his history, but not confined by it.