It feels strange reviewing Ukulele Songs, because it is so clearly a one-off that its presence almost defies critical inspection. The album is full of flubs and curses and flaws and impurities that one would expect from an album that is essentially a collection of songs performed exclusively on that titular instrument. A track is spent hearing Vedder mess up a ukulele line and yelling, “fuck” in frustration. His phone goes off at the end of “Satellite” and he answers it as the recording fades out. Vedder even lights something up at the beginning of “Goodbye”, Lil Wayne style. If Ukulele Songs isn’t a compliment to Pearl Jam or Eddie Vedder as musician, it certainly is a compliment to Vedder as an engaging personality.
But this is why people love Pearl Jam. They have a rare connection with their fanbase that allows the group to release albums like Ukulele Songs that may never have seen the light of day in other hands, and these songs are all valued additions to the Vedder/PJ catalogue. Between fuck-ups and jokes, there are some brilliant products on Ukulele Songs. Vedder conveys longing brilliantly on album highlight, “Sleepless Nights” and, with Cat Power singer Chan Marshall in tow, the vocal frills of “Tonight You Belong to Me” are intimate and precious. Tracks like “You’re True” and “Can’t Keep” could be worthy additions to the tracklists of Backspacer and Vitalogy, respectively, if they were fleshed out. The album’s short and quaint, but it accomplishes all the goals it sets out for itself and often exceeds them.
So if you’re a fan of Pearl Jam and/or Eddie Vedder, Ukulele Songs is a must, because it is good enough to be comparable with Pearl Jam’s 2005 self-titled LP. And if “Just Breathe” was your favorite track off Backspacer, then you may want to listen to the album sitting down, because it is so delicate and authentic you may need to change your pants afterwards. As Ukulele Songs enters its second half, though, the songs start to sound more formulaic than Vedder’s more official work, but, as a side project of one of the greatest bands still making music today, it’s pretty hard to talk about expectations.