Whenever the ukulele is mentioned, many people picture a fat Hawaiian man singing ‘Over the Rainbow’. It is a happy picture for a happy instrument. On Ukulele Songs, Eddie Vedder instead uses it to accentuate his feelings of loneliness and desire. Surprisingly, this juxtaposition works.
Vedder’s inner world seems to be a rather bleak, stark place. Most of the songs are told in a storyteller style, with Vedder weaving together feelings of loneliness, desire, separation, and seclusion, within the lives of the characters he creates: ‘Don’t think that I’m outside playing, because I’m inside waiting for you,’ he sings on ‘Satellite’.
While most songs tend to spiral into fits of longing, Vedder does manage to keep from sounding overly depressing, for two reasons. The first is the ukulele itself. Its natural sound is one of happiness, and that consistently shines through. Also, the length of the songs helps to keep things moving. Only two songs, ‘You’re True and ‘Without You,’ surpass three minutes, and six tracks clock in at less than two.
However, as much as this is helpful, it also occasionally acts as a hindrance. ‘Hey Fahkah’ is only eight seconds long and consists of Vedder saying ‘Fahkah’ twice, and several songs feel as though they end before their proper time, particularly ‘Waving Palms’ and ‘Tonight You Belong To Me.’ Coincidentally, the latter is also the album’s high point, with Chan ‘Cat Power’ Marshall joining Vedder for a truly wonderful duet. But just as you really start to enjoy it, the song fades away.
Fortunately, Ukulele Songs occasionally steps into more lighted-hearted territory. ‘You’re True’ strikes a welcome note of happiness, given the surrounding sentiments, while ‘Can’t Keep’ opens the album with excited strumming. That excitement is matched by the opening lines: ‘I wanna shake, I wanna wind out, I wanna leave this mind and shout.’ Despite the low moods of many of the tracks, Vedder successfully (for the most part) takes a fringe instrument and manages to create a soothing album.