Album Review: Eddie Vedder’s ‘Ukulele Songs’

Eddie Vedder recently joked to a New York Times reporter that his mission on “Ukulele Songs”  was “Can I make this happy little instrument as depressed as I am?”

The answer is no. No matter how hard he strums or picks on his new solo album, he can”t take the inherent joy out of the four-stringed instrument.

The set opens with his take on Pearl Jam song “Can”t Keep.” If it”s humanly possibly to rock out on a ukulele, Vedder makes it happen. On “You”re True,” he manages to create an opening redolent of The Who”s “Pinball Wizard,”  But for the rest of the set, Vedder wisely gives way to the ukulele”s inherent swaying charms.

“Ukulele Songs” is an intentionally delicate slip of an album. Listening to “Ukulele Songs”” 16 songs feels like watching feathers gently waft through the air to the ground, in no hurry to get there.  There”s no hint of Pearl Jam”s heaviness. Even on heartbreakers, such as “Goodbye,” there”s a lightness, even if it”s often tinged with sadness and a vulnerability.

Contributing to the airiness is the album”s brevity. The entire set is under 35 minutes, so no song goes much past the two-minute mark. “Waving Palms” clocks in at a brisk 37 seconds.  On the 8-second “Hey Fahkah,” we get a rarity: the sound of Vedder laughing as he screws up a note. It”s further reminder that none of this is meant to be taken so seriously.

While Vedder”s baritone and the uke are front and center, other voices, instruments and sounds occasionally weave in and out. On the dreamy “Light Today,” waves crash throughout the song. The gorgeous first single “Longing to Belong” includes a cello to bring out the bittersweet sense of desire.

Swell Season”s Glen Hansard proves a worthy duet partner on “Sleepless Nights,” a country chestnut written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (who also wrote “Love Hurts”  and “Bye Bye Love”) that some may recognize from the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris version. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) drops by for a wistful “Tonight You Belong To Me.”

The album closes on the standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” with Vedder seemingly channeling his inner Leon Redbone.

Fans of Vedder”s solo work on the “Into the Wild” soundtrack will find this follows the same continuum. Like his musical hero Neil Young, Vedder can seemingly express himself no matter how hard or how little he rocks.