“I’ll be sleeping by myself tonight,” sings Eddie Vedder on Ukulele Songs, his reflective, minimal new solo album. It’s a touching moment for a guy who spends most of his waking hours growling, screaming, and snarling as frontman for Pearl Jam, America’s long-running kings of anthemic classic rock. But 16 tracks full of touching moments, played by a lonesome Vedder on the ukulele—with nary a guitar to speak of—has the potential to be a quietly awkward disaster of the highest proportions.
Instead, Ukulele Songs is just a fine little album—not great, not awkward in the slightest—that offers Vedder a well-earned break from gusto. Though partially recorded in former grunge capital Seattle, Ukulele Songs was largely recorded in an Oahu studio, and the wistful, ocean-gazing spirits that are generated seem reflective of the scenery. And at its finest, like on the transfixing Pearl Jam re-working opener, “Can’t Keep,” the project feels more substantive than just a cute one-off experiment.
Vedder already demonstrated with his sublime soundtrack to Into the Wild that his bitter, drunk uncle vocals lend themselves perfectly to acoustic-based music (as long as the tunes are inspired), so it’s no surprise that he’s able to make these laid-back songs work. The problem is that, over 16 tracks cut from the exact same sonic cloth, the sounds turn a tad monochromatic. Tracks flow into each other, mostly waltzing through similar tempos and what sounds like one key. Vedder repeats only minor variations on the same strumming pattern, and since the uke isn’t especially known for its versatility, the sound of fingers rubbing against nylon strings quickly grates.
Things perk up when Vedder plays around with the template—like the welcome cello line on “Longing to Belong” or the warm harmonies on “Without You.” “Tonight You Belong to Me,” which features guest harmonizing from Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, automatically secures a slot as one of the album’s most re-playable tracks, if only due to the presence of another human being.
Ukulele Songs is lovely as it breezes by, but it doesn’t promise a very long shelf-life. But, then again, that doesn’t really seem to be the point. Far from a vanity project or an indulgent side-step, it’s still an album recorded more for Vedder himself than anyone else. It’s the sound of Eddie Vedder chilling the fuck out after a couple decades of angst, and regardless of your thoughts on his ukulele endeavors, you’ve gotta admit the dude has earned the privilege.