“Are you ready for a bit of Echo Victor?” a reverberating Eddie Vedder announces at the top of his third solo album Earthling, invoking the radio alphabet code for “EV.” And all at once, it’s clear this is the Pearl Jam frontman’s 13-song transmission from beyond our world, our time, our lives, and our dimension.
He is calling out into the universe with his own Voyager Golden Record to share what it is to be human here on our planet. Or is it nakedly in a dreamlike alternate timeline where the ‘90s are in the future, and everything all is a warm, analog avocado-and-harvest-gold rave-up visited by legends like Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, and touched by love and loss equally?
This is Major Tom beyond ground control, the man who fell from Earth.
In the capsule out in the cosmic ocean with Vedder is a most iconoclastic crew. Grammy-winning producer Andrew Watt, who has worked with folks including Ozzy Osbourne, Post Malone and Miley Cyrus, has been a Pearl Jam fan since way back but doesn’t wear it on his sleeve here as co-writer and multi-instrumentalist on many songs, helping steer Vedder within himself. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer form the rest of the core Earthling band.
Vedder has never been shy about naming his influences, and here they form a buoyant cloud lifting the enterprise up among the stars. So-era Peter Gabriel floats through the soaring opener “Invincible.” Mellow Petty-esque lead single “The Long Way,” shares DNA with Tom Petty (and a thematic extension from Pearl Jam’s own “Parting Ways,” perhaps). Why yes, that is Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on the organ. There are X-by-way-of-the-Clash moments like “Good and Evil,” and a winking Mike Watt name check on “Rose of Jericho” (Econo!).
When you reach the Social Distortion-inspired rockabilly love song “Try,” that wild harmonica announces Stevie Wonder has entered the airlock. The Beatles vibes command “Mrs. Mills,” which even features Ringo Starr on drums, wherein EV tells the story of an Eleanor Rigby-like singer he would have saved from loneliness if he could. Fab Four elements on “Picture” (which includes Paul McCartney’s latter-day drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.) soon give way to full-on “Philadelphia Freedom” stadium boogie as Sir Elton John takes the center mic, and Vedder duets in a humbler, breathy tenor. Love, naturally, is the throughline, of this Earthling’s transmission, but being Vedder, there is a dip into darkness and “hearts fit together because they’re broken.”
Third single “Brother The Cloud,” a semi-tropical mid-tempo rocker, comes close to focusing in sharply from hopeful macrocosm to darker microcosm. Is the blue-eyed brother that is suddenly gone Vedder’s real-life brother Chris Mueller, who died in a 2016 climbing accident? Is it his musical “brother” Chris Cornell, who died in 2017? Is it neither? Either way, he “would bleed out my knees and pray if I could give all that I have to bring back yesterday.”
Indeed, the most metaphysical moments in this life intergalactic examining human be-ing are Vedder’s family cameos. His teenage daughters sing backing vocals on one song each, “Try” (Olivia) and “Long Way” (Harper). And Earthling closes with the eerie, bittersweet “On My Way,” which features Vedder duetting with his actual late father, oh he of partially autobiographical Pearl Jam hit “Alive.” It is a stunning contronym in many ways. “I’ll be on my way” his crooning, long passed ‘70s singer dad Edward Louis Severson, Jr. croons ethereally, as if from light years away, atop a sad piano refrain. Is he suggesting departures or return? “Can you hear?” hopeful the son, father-of-two Vedder, replies urgently. “It’s Echo Victor.” “When we love, invincible,” Vedder says as the last line of his dad’s “I’ll be on my way,” floats away into space.