If one wanted to attempt to string a narrative together between recent war-related Pearl Jam songs, then “Last Soldier” might be told in the voice of the absent, overseas father of “Army Reserve”. It’s certainly another attempt on behalf of Vedder to pen a lyric that details the human toll of recent current events. Now the word on the street is that Ed has been working on a soundtrack to a documentary about a severely wounded Iraq War veteran, with a new tune, “No More War”, already making appearances at solo performances. Could/should “Last Soldier” be considered?
One of my greatest disappointments as a Pearl Jam fan is that “Last Soldier” has never, at least not to my knowledge, been attempted in the studio. The song made its live debut at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit concert in the fall of 2001, shortly after the World Trade Center catastrophe, along with “I Am Mine”. But while the latter was already in the can for Riot Act, “Last Soldier” didn’t make the cut, and maybe was never even considered. Mike McCready has been quoted as saying “We never talked about doing it.” Dear lord why not?
The closest I can get to an answer is that the song just never seemed to fit in with any of the projects on the table thus far. The hole in this theory of course, is that in addition to “Last Soldier”, McCready also wrote the music for the similarly styled “Down”, which became both the b-side to “I Am Mine” and a standout track on Lost Dogs. But while “Down” is a wonderful song, I love “Last Soldier” much more, enough that it’s probably in my Top 10. There’s no accounting for taste of course, and my preference might not be something I can justify in words, but I will do my best to extol the virtues of the great semi-lost “Last Soldier”.
The song sounds absolutely effortless. For an open-chord folk strummer, the song is less self-conscious than “Driftin'” and gentler than “Down”. Vedder is full-on Zen mode here, fatalistic yet calm, and his voice reflects that spirit even when delivering lines like “My number’s up / My time has come.” Standing bravely in the face of death is one of the most affecting acts one can portray in art as far as I’m concerned, which is probably why I cry at way too many movies that no one has any right to cry at, like Bruce Willis on that frickin’ asteroid. This is what “Last Soldier” is like for me, minus the tears and shame. It’s just a straight-forward, no bullshit account of sacrifice. The chord progressions are familiar but effective, perfect for the stripped down acoustic arrangement with its poignant harmonica embellishments. Vedder’s melodies are efficient, pretty, and he doesn’t overdo or over-think a single thing.
“Army Reserve” isn’t the only song that can be traced back to “Last Soldier”. “World Wide Suicide” is another that easily springs to mind when considering the lines, “And my decision’s been made / From some other place / By someone I don’t know and they don’t know me.” I’m sure there are plenty more as well. Of course the song’s old man-ish wisdom and peacefulness wouldn’t have flown on either of the last two records. But perhaps someday it might be better recorded for a compilation with other like-minded tracks like “Long Road”, “Who You Are”, any song that seeks clarity and understanding, however difficult or melancholy.