Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs
The ballad "More Than You Know" was written by Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu in 1929, a souvenir from a long gone era that a romantic might be tempted to posit represented "simpler times." Insofar as it's unlikely that anyone reading this remembers much about 1929, it may be difficult to ascertain the accuracy of that familiar maxim; while it seems reasonable that earlier generations of Americans may have been richer in spirit for not having been forced to toil over 6,193 brands of breakfast cereal every time they went shopping for groceries, it's equally difficult to imagine those same Americans standing poised on the brink of Depression and truly believing that having to weed out a few extraneous varieties of Cheerios could represent a quagmire somehow more damning to the human condition than the "simpler" choice between starving and eating one's own shoelaces. Maybe it's just the poetry of modern life, that often unpredictable relationship between simplicity and ease.
Still, for that ever-prominent demographic of internet-era music aficionados still hovering on the safe side of thirty, something about this notion of throwback simplicity is infinitely appealing. Popular love songs written prior to the encroachment of rock-and-roll-as-serious-art de-emphasize the self with a humility that's become increasingly rare in the art form, objects of modern affection frequently taking a back seat to songwriters' various attempts to convey their own pain as some kind of artistic triumph. The Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart ballad "Glad to Be Unhappy," written in 1936 and immortalized by Frank Sinatra on In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol, 1955), inadvertently summarizes the mantra of this entire generation of songwriters who bridged the relatively subjective gap between Tin Pan Alley and rock and roll: "Unrequited love's a bore/And I've got it pretty bad/But for someone you adore/It's a pleasure to be sad." One reason that modern unrequited love songs seem so predisposed to pretension is that they ignore the idea that, even if it goes unreciprocatedand provided it's not so all-consuming that it drives those involved clinically insanebeing head over heels for someone is actually a pretty damn good feeling. Whether or not this music or its pervading theme accurately reflects its time is fairly irrelevant; what matters is that, as love songs, they did everything right. Even though the wounded souls who succeeded them have produced volumes of brilliant, heart-rending material, the timelessness of this music can be attributed at least partially to its proclivity to adulate the loved, not shed tears over the unloved.
Having attained notoriety fronting a group not uncommonly viewed as the most famously dour rock band of a generation rife with dour rock bands, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder is a man revered neither for modesty in regards to his own pain nor for his role as successor in the never-ending lineage of pop standard interpreters. Though hardcore stalwarts had been privy to it for years, a major critical accolade for Pearl Jam's rarities collection Lost Dogs (Epic, 2003) was thattwelve years into the band's careerit finally provided a showcase for Vedder's often rumored, seldom seen lighter side. But prior to the curious appearance of "Soon Forget"an innocuous vignette decrying materialism in which Vedder accompanies himself solely on ukuleleon Binaural (Epic, 2000), few scenarios would have seemed as improbable, even to those same hardcore stalwarts, than a solo record of relationship ditties performed in its entirety on this smallest, most unassuming of stringed instruments. Released in May, 2011 on Pearl Jam's Monkeywrench label, Ukulele Songs isn't merely a forum for a notoriously disaffected rocker's mellow side; it's a streamlined venture of focus, concision and clarity that suggests a wholly reordered philosophy.
As an historical turn of events, Ukulele Songs is not surprising; Vedder is hardly the first rocker to hit forty, settle down with a family, and find his music espousing life's common pleasantries as much as its horrors and injustices. But what sets Ukulele Songs apartbeyond the clear novelty element of it being a ukulele record made by a rock staris its inherent musical and lyrical language, an unpretentious directness born out of the same artistic values laid out in the preceding paragraphs. This is not to suggest that Eddie Vedder has become Cole Porter, only that, fairly unprecedentedly, he's now providing evidence that he may have learned a thing or two from Porter's kind, and nowhere on the record are these influences clearer than in the four pop standards that accountapart from Youmans, Rose and Eliscu's "More Than You Know," which shows up far earlier in the runningfor the album's final sequence. Though the brevity of each of these tracks suggests their intended role as palate-cleansers, their inclusion has implications for Ukulele Songs that carry directly over into both Vedder's originals and his take on Felice and Bourdleaux Bryant's "Sleepless Nights," a standard of slightly different vintage that's nevertheless right at home here.
The Wikipedia entry for recorded versions of "More Than You Know" is too large to be contained on a single screen; since its inception eighty-two years ago, it's been rendered by everyone from vocalists Billie Holiday and Judy Garland to saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins to, in perhaps its ultimate act of genre defiance, Brent Spiner (yes, the guy who played Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation) on his album Ol' Yellow Eyes is Back (Bay Cities, 1991). It's a textbook example of Lorenz Hart's "glad to be unhappy" mantra, and its placement on Ukulele Songs is key; when it appears, the solemn tension established by the two preceding tracks ("Sleeping By Myself," the frank account of a man cast aside by his beloved, and "Without You," the gracious promise of a man coming to grips with how lucky he is to still have her around) utterly decompresses, instantly rekeying the emotional tone of the record to its subdued and arguably misguided joy.
The term "misguided" applies because, judging strictly by the portion of the lyrics Vedder includes (he forgivably omits the "man of my dreams" lyric), it isn't entirely clear whether the singer's love is reciprocal or not; vague suggestions exist that perhaps it is ("Oh, how I'd cry/If you got tired and said goodbye"), but that the extent of the reciprocation isn't above suspicion ("The little bit of love that I get/May be all that you can give/But I can't live without it"). Still, contrary to the way one may interpret the fantasies of a narrator unable to keep from pining over a love interest who barely gives him the time of day, "More Than You Know" moves with the grace not of a man enslaved to his emotions, but one who simply understands the pleasure in surrendering to them every once in a while. This "gladness to be unhappy" rolls outward and across the rest of Ukulele Songs, whose songs all explore love within these similarly undefined parameters, and it forms the heart of the record's most fundamental lesson: As it exists in the heart of the lover, unrequited love and requited love are really no different. At the center of both is hope.
"Once in a While," written by Michael Edwards and lyricist Bud Green and published in 1937, is essentially a spin on the same daydream, though here the lover has clearly already left and, we can assume, is gone for good: "Once in a while/Will you try to give one little thought to me?/Though someone else may be nearer to your heart." Neither mopey nor bitter, Vedder's deep, delicate baritone concedes maturely to the better man who got the girl, submitting instead a polite request simply not to be forgotten: "I know that I'll be contented/With yesterday's memory/Knowing you think of me/Once in a while." Packing a lifetime worth of gracious loser's dignity into less than two minutes, this stoic musical postcard casts a retrospective light on songs like "Goodbye" and "Broken Heart," rescuing them from whatever self-pity a less careful listener might read into them. Within the admittedly dubious context of Vedder's most famous material, it would be easy to misconstrue the forthcoming plaintiveness of these songs as pathosbut their framing by material already written into the common vernacular of popular music solicits their tendencies toward universality into the fore. As such, as much as "More Than You Know" and "Once in a While" earn their timelessness, it's easy to imagine "Goodbye" and "Longing To Belong" travelling backwards through the years, only to return in a crackly AM radio transmission by way of a long-forgotten chanteuse's broken alto.
Coming on the heels of the thirty-second instrumental "Waving Palms," "Tonight You Belong To Me," composed in 1926 by Billy Rose and Lee David, provides Ukulele Songs with its ultimate moment of levity. Performed here with Chan Marshall (known to the record-downloading public as Cat Power) providing guest vocals, its familiarity to modern America as a duet between Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in The Jerk (Universal, 1979) infuses it with a cheekiness that, again, transcends the immediate content of the song and affirms Ukulele Songs, despite its languid tempos and dubious sagas of lost or never-found love, as a record with a positive spirit. Even in the brief ninety seconds during which it features, the lighthearted use of Marshall's feminine counterpoint pervades repeat listens of the album, looming ever in the background when songs like "Sleeping By Myself" threaten to ring with the desolate utterances of a man alone. As is usually the case, Vedder's relationship songs tell one side of the story; the female voice waiting to chime in at the album's penultimate moment implies that seldom seen second viewpoint, and its effect is diffusive. Ultimately, in the continued spirit of the unrequited love standard, these are songs for and about the other person, not their author in his moment of darkness.
"Dream a Little Dream" (also known as "Dream a Little Dream of Me"), written by Fabian Andre, Wilbur Schwandt and Gus Kant in 1931, closes Ukulele Songs with a winka nuanced performance piece in which the performance is the inclusion of the song itself. Vedder's delivery is grizzled and expressive, like latter-day incarnations of Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteenit sounds less like he's concluding a record and more like he's actually singing his wife or children to sleep, enraptured in the moment and trying not to sing over the silence of the room. It's the finest performance on the record. And like "Once In a While," it doesn't ask to be lovedit asks only to be thought of. And then it wishes well.
Something remarkable about these trackswhich have been interpreted and reinterpreted for seven to eight decades, often framed with the grandeur of orchestras or deconstructed in the spontaneity of small group jazzis how unpredictably the ukulele, hardly the most versatile of instruments, manages to serve the delicacy and unpretentiousness of the songwriting. When Vedder first introduced the instrument into his repertoire eleven years ago, it challenged fans to accept an alternate creative medium into an extant set of conventions; likewise, when many of these songs began circulating on a grainy live bootleg from 2002, they sounded misshapen and foreignworks of a man writing on an instrument he wasn't entirely familiar with, and in a language barer by degrees than had historically been his inclination (particularly coming off Binaural, largely Pearl Jam's murkiest, most obscure record). Finally, here, they make sensenot simply for being included amid a program of other "ukulele songs," which matters, but for finally being presented within their proper framework as artistic entities. And for that, Ukulele Songs is a indeed record worthy of simpler timeseven though its long-vanished sensibilities in regards to heartbreak and the songs inspired by such render it equally useful in these.
Tracks: Can't Keep; Sleeping By Myself; Without You; More Than You Know; Goodbye; Broken Hearted; Satellite; Longing to Belong; Hey Fahkah; You're True; Light Today; Sleepless Nights; Once in a While; Waving Palms; Tonight You Belong To Me; Dream a Little Dream.
Personnel: Eddie Vedder: ukulele, vocals; Glen Hansard: vocals (12); Chan Marshall: vocals (15).