Drifting

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.

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~ by Michael on July 4, 2007.

9 Responses to “Drifting”

  1. C13, it seems to be Ed’s lyric writing that is causing you problems rather than his emulation of folk music as a genre. Over the years, especially in tunes that he writes for a specific purpose, his lyrics have become more and more explicit. The vagaries that were so common in his early songs have almost completely disappeared.

    I don’t think the evolution that you are seeking is likely to happen, in fact the opposite seems to be happening. DRIFTING is from 1999, THUMBING MY WAY from 2002, NO MORE from 2007. Enough time has elapsed that I believe that the pointedness of NO MORE is fully intentional.

    Out of curiosity, both I WON’T BACK DOWN and PATRIOT are covers. Do you find them less “soapbox-y” than the Ed songs from Riot Act on?

  2. I only really find the more folky Ed songs to be soapbox-y. I feel like he does a much better job with other songs, from Cropduster to Unemployable. In many respects, I think he’s become a stronger lyricist, just not when he turns to folk. Van Zant’s “Patriot” is perhaps just as direct and anthemic, but I think it’s pretty advanced lyric wise. And “I Won’t Back Down” is more timeless. There’s something about those two songs, plus Dylan’s early work, that has a real command of classic poetic rhythms and themes that enhances their power beyond just being plain-spoken and direct. I don’t necessarily want Ed to stop going in the direction he’s going, I just hope (and believe he will) he gets a better grasp of it.

  3. Fair enough. I actually think, although many longstanding fans disagree, that, in general, Eddie’s lyrics have gotten stronger as they have become more sharply focused. I simply don’t understand some of the early songs like INDIFFERENCE, as lovely as it is. I love the way that you have deconstructed the songs in your analyses, injecting your opinions after laying out the substance of the songs. It is a method that allows a lot of room for discussion.

    I am looking forward to your analysis of CROPDUSTER. It is another song not much liked by the fans, but I love it.

    Oh, and I find DRIFTING to be an absolutely charming song. I’m not put off by the anti-corporate sentiments. The line, “The suitcoats say there is money to be made,” is actually a line that I am fond of. For me, it has a light, devil-may-care quality that I find appealing and not the grim, anti-corporate feeling that it seems to have for you.

  4. That’s a very interesting discussion Susan, the difference between abstract and direct lyrics. I actually agree with you about liking ‘sharply focused’ lyrics more, but writing them creates special challenges for the writer. A lot of Ed’s earlier work can be accused of purposefully muddying the water w/r/t meaning. That’s definitely not the case anymore. “Cropduster” will be interesting to write about. I enjoy that tune quite a bit.

  5. I bet that this review took longer to write than the song “Drifting”. (maybe not, considering C13 can write one of these in his sleep)

    I don’t think anyone the fact that there are two very different versions of this song on record. I like the X-mas single version so much better than the LD version. The vinyl 45 has Ed singing like he has never before, with that distinct cowboy drawl. He really tapped into that Willie Nelson-esq vocal, whereas the Lost Dog version is just normal Ed and sped up.

  6. My remark made me think of a comment Ed once made when asked why the vinyl cover had different artwork than the cd for the album Vs. He said something like ‘Vinyl is much more softer/gentle/enjoyable to the ears compared to a CD, and that’s why the sheep is not gnawing at the consumer on the vinyl artwork.’

  7. Hence, the softer down to earth version of “Drifting” on the vinyl only release.

  8. By the way, this is the first I am hearing about the new ed solo album. Thanks for breaking the good news!!!

  9. This is so off-topic that I’m not even sure whether I should post it, but I’ll go ahead anyway. According to Dark Horizons, Eddie is not only writing songs, he’s working on the score for the movie “Into the Wild” with Gustavo Santaolalla.

    Here is the link
    http://www.darkhorizons.com/news07/070708c.php

    I have a lot of Latin American relatives, so I’m a big fan of Gustavo, particularly Ronroco, but seeing as how Dark Horizons didn’t even spell his name correctly, I’m not sure that any of this is true.

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