Composer: Eddie Vedder
Label: J Records
Suggested Retail Price: $ 14.99
Grade: B+

Rock has always been about rebellion. And with his throaty voice and instinctive guitar playing, Eddie Vedder helped to create the Grunge sound as a member of Pearl Jam. It was a style that was more about rawness than sophistication, its angry, yet poetic power chords speaking for legions of goateed kids who wanted out of The System. Vedder was a musical pioneer of an f-the world attitude, but it was Christopher McCandless who did it for real. In 1992, this privileged college grad chucked it all to find himself in the great outdoors. Traveling across America’s unpaved wilderness, McCandless’ quest would ultimately lead him to both doom, and spiritual salvation in the Alaskan tundra.

Now with writer-director Sean Penn giving cinematic sweep to McCandless’ journey for Into the Wild, one couldn’t imagine a better musical tour guide to accompany him than Eddie Vedder – or for that matter fellow composers Michael Brook and Kaki King. While they’ll hopefully get their own Wild albums released, it’s understandable how the Grunge superstar would have the first soundtrack out of the gate. And it’s a powerful, song-driven CD that speaks volumes for the largely silent McCandless, its tunes full of emotional yearning and a melodic beauty that I’ve found lacking in the Grunge world.

In fact, Eddie Vedder’s work here is far closer in spirit to such classic folk balladeers as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (as well as their latter counterparts Bob Dylan and Neil Young). Those two singers spent time on the road, speaking for the “traveler” spirit in the youths who jumped on board train box cars and rickety vehicles to see the great, untamed America – even if what they found wasn’t to their liking. While McCandless was a far more educated hobo, Vedder’s work here is more about the personal instead of the political. Most of his tunes are short, but to the point, with a poetry that makes you hear the deserts, great plains, crashing waves and soul-sucking cities that the youth encounters on his travels – the lyrical equivalent to McCandless’ diary entries that Into the Wild uses to mark his journey.

Vedder’s songs for Wild range from fully produced Grunge stylings to the plucking of just a few guitar strings, the latter being the most effective. And like McCandless’ enthusiasm, the album starts out with a fun, raw drive, ultimately becoming more stripped down as McCandless’ worldly possessions go out the window. And as McCandless finally lies on an abandoned bus in the surreal throws of starvation, Vedder realizes with him that the human connection is what matters all along – something far more important to the soul than any scenic vista. It’s a heck of a moral lesson, and one that Vedder handles a little more subtly than Penn does in his depiction of it.

Into the Wild gives Eddie Vedder a terrific opportunity to represent the instrumental changes of scenery, using a banjo, mandolin, solo guitar, and a squeezebox. It adds to a rustic vibe, yet one that doesn’t descend into the strumming clichés of guitar-driven scores like this. If anything, you feel like Vedder’s almost ready to burst into a rendition of “Dust in the Wind.” And tunes that evoke the best of Kansas is certainly a compliment to the resonant, spiritual hominess that Vedder evokes here, especially in the stand-out tunes “No Ceiling,” “Rise” and “Hard Sun.”

At 33 minutes (minus the endless minutes it takes you to get to the last bonus track), Into the Wild runs too short. It will definitely appeal to Eddie Vedder’s Grunge base, as well as the more restrained folk audience. This just would have been cooler as a more substantial listen that would have included Brook and King’s equally notable work. But that’s not what The Man wanted, which is no insult to Vedder’s powerful contributions to Wild’s musical landscape. If anything, Into the Wild treks Vedder’s growth from Grunge frontman to a powerful, film music balladeer. And I’m looking forward to his future soundtrack journeys to come.

To buy the Into the Wild soundtrack, click here.