It feels entirely appropriate to discuss “Drifting” now, as a follow-up of sorts to the post on “Thumbing My Way”, and to the exciting news that an entire album of solo Ed Vedder originals is on the way in the form of a soundtrack to Sean Penn’s latest film, Into the Wild (which apparently does not include “Long Nights” or “No More”, from the Body of War documentary). I’ve been thinking about the roots of my dislike of “Thumbing My Way” and while I stand by my opinion, I can admit it might not be entirely fair. “Drifting” has helped me to see this to an extent.
As someone who loves to dissect and deconstruct rock music, I try hard not to compare apples and oranges. Meaning it makes no sense to compare, let’s say, Pavement with Christina Aguilera. Neither is working towards the same goals, so it’s unfair to fault one for not being the other. But I fear that with the recent development of a particular strain of Vedder’s songwriting typified by “Drifting” and “Thumbing My Way”, I’ve done just that. Over the past ten or twelve years I’ve spent time studying, learning, and loving folk music and its seemingly infinite derivations—ironically thanks in part to Pearl Jam’s participation on the Sweet Relief benefit album back when I was 13. So I’ve immersed myself in everything from the Child ballads to Stephen Foster to Skip James to Vashti Bunyan to Iron & Wine to you name it. Consequently I’ve been guilty at comparing Vedder’s first few attempts at directly folk-inspired songwriting to masters of the craft.
While I am full of that wonderful anticipation that comes with news of a new Pearl Jam or Ed project, and I feel like I’m fairly free of unfair expectations, I don’t think Ed’s recent acoustic-based songs are his strongest… yet. I’m very fond of “Drifting” as a Pearl Jam song and a stepping stone toward different directions for the group, but I ultimately have to admit to myself that it’s just that, a start, a beginning. The band has already shown inordinate skill at incorporating different sounds into its purposefully basic rock set-up, from world-music rhythms to funk, R&B, punk, metal, etc. But with a few exceptions that we’ll get to soon (“Off He Goes”, which though it’s one of my favorites, sounds awfully close to Neil Young’s “Campaigner”, and “Man of the Hour”, also a gem, exquisite), real traditional folk hasn’t fared as well. That’s only natural, since it’s fairly recently that tunes like “Drifting” et al have surfaced, and it’s also completely understandable given Ed’s influences.
“Drifting” is charming because of its simplicity. It’s meant to be fun, a campfire singalong, not transforming or monumental in scope. As such it was perfect for inclusion on the 1999 fan club single, a real treat to have another original. But it’s not without its politics (“The suitcoats say there is money to be made”) which remind one heavily of much of Riot Act and its kin, from “Green Disease” to “Down”. In that respect it’s admirably earnest but just a tad callow. Ed’s tendency when he picks up an acoustic guitar can get a little soapbox-y for better or worse. Better: the Ralph Nader shows, “I Won’t Back Down”, “Patriot”. Worse: “No More”, though I’ll wait until the final version to make a full judgment. Obviously Vedder’s a fan of early, political broadsiding Dylan (“The Times They Are-A Changin'”, “Masters of War”). The problem is, this style is extremely, extremely hard to emulate. I’ll wager that part of the reason Dylan abandoned the style for more personal and imaginative ventures, much to the dismay of Seeger and the old guard, is that you can only write so many of those songs, or at least so many good ones.
As I’ve written before, political songs are difficult to pull off. Even if your audience agrees with the argument of the song, there’s the danger of making one want to play devil’s advocate. That’s not the case with “Drifting”, but while the song is jaunty and fun and I-IV-V singable and all that, the point Vedder wants to make keeps poking up and jabbing me in the ass. It’s like, “I get it! People are greedy! Corporations [can] suck. Take the road less traveled, yes yes.” I’m with it 100%, but I think “Drifting” would have been fine without those direct punches. It could have even achieved the same effect. “My road it may be lonely just because it’s not paved / It’s good for driftin’, driftin’ away.” The romanticizing of a wandering, rambling life free of materialism would come across just as well without the strawmen in suitcoats.
Likewise with “Thumbing My Way”, I feel right now that Ed’s just figuring out the possibilities and special challenges of writing folky material (special note, I’ve not mentioned “Small Town” because there’s something to be said for beginner’s luck and/or lucky strikes). There’s a lot that can be done with folk music besides straight-forward emotive ballads and soapboxing. Both songs are meaningful to the evolution of Ed’s artistry and that of the band’s, and are also enjoyable and of course meaningful to a lot of people. But I like to feel that they are just the beginning of even better things to come.