Pete Yorn has been particularly productive the last couple years, and there’s a couple reasons why that might be the case. Is he in desperate need of money? Well, with album sales being what they are these days, most artists don’t make much if any money from them. Touring is by far the more lucrative method of getting some quick cash, though hypothetically Yorn could do a few years worth of it and maintain strong ticket sales even without some new music to back it up. Yet Yorn is now releasing his fifth album, a mere year after his last one “Back & Fourth”. Previously he’s gone at least 2 years between records. Maybe he’s just feeling exceptionally productive these days. He’s also got a brand new record label after signing to Vagrant, certainly a step down from the massive Columbia but perhaps he likes it that way. He also worked with a new producer this time around in the form of Mr. Frank Black, a name you might recognize in association with the Pixies or Black Francis or any number of other musical projects he’s associated with. It’s most likely that combination of elements, getting a fresh label with a fresh producer that pushed Yorn to make his fifth record self-titled. Given his hit-or-miss history over the past 10 years, on the surface this new one appears to have a lot going for it, the question is whether or not that’s enough.
“Precious Stone” opens the album, and as Pete Yorn tends to write love songs pretty well, this one fares as one of his best to date. Of course comparing a woman to a precious stone isn’t exactly a new concept, but cliched situation or not, Yorn’s smart writing helps greatly. Where it doesn’t aid him is on the song “Rock Crowd”, where the cheese factor is so high that it has become a new anthem for mice. The idea behind the song is this: poor Pete Yorn always feels tired and depressed and down, but then he steps on stage to adoring fans and it’s like a warm embrace that makes him feel all better. Will Yorn play it at virtually every single show from now until eternity? You can probably bet on it, and I’ve not heard a more pandering song in the last several years. “Cutesy” is another way to describe it, along with the song that directly follows “Rock Crowd”, which is “Velcro Shoes”. Surely you’ve heard the Paolo Nutini hit “New Shoes” about how he puts his “new shoes on and suddenly everything is right”. With “Velcro Shoes” he tells the story of buying the shoes, going home and taking a bath with his imaginary friend Billy, then having imaginary adventures with Billy. Let’s hope the song was written from the perspective of a little boy, or Yorn might have some unchecked mental issues. What’s most interesting about that track though is how much it sounds exactly like something that Frank Black would do either solo or with his band the Catholics. A lot of the album actually carries that Frank Black touch, and that largely comes through in the heavy electric guitar work and some of Yorn’s vocals which sometimes get to the point where it sounds like somebody else is singing. One listen to “Badman” and you’ll be left wondering what new artist you’ve just stumbled upon. The words are 100% Pete Yorn though, and there’s no doubt about that, which is good for the wordplay but just a little bland when it comes to concepts and storylines.
Speaking of concepts and storylines, this self-titled record finds Yorn trying to manage the challenges of being bipolar. What’s that, you say? Pete Yorn isn’t bipolar? Perhaps a psychologist can give this record a listen and craft a diagnosis based around that. Hell, the song “Rock Crowd”, as I’ve already attested, features both his light and dark side. But much of the album comes from a very raw and intense emotional place. He appears to be pretty down on himself in general, such as on “The Chase” where he’s pretty much an asshole to this woman he loves, and then basically admits to being a horrible person while trying to convince her to come back to him. For an opposing viewpoint, the song “Always” spends a fair amount of time talking about the challenges that come with falling in love, but maintains all the struggles are worth it in the end just to have that deep connection with another person. “Stronger Than” gets all high and mighty by proclaiming that “love is stronger than fear”, yet Yorn is extremely hesitant to even consider falling in love because “I gotta know myself before I know someone else”. Then “Future Life” takes the high road in the perspective that we’re constantly wanting more out of our lives and because that makes us miserable, we should focus on all the great things we have right this minute. It’s optimism, but the subtext is telling you to give up on your dreams. At least for this song, Yorn ascribes to the mentality of “today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present”. The album closes with a pretty straightforward folk cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers song “Wheels”, and there are two reasons why that’s amusing. First, Yorn has a song called “Burrito”, and though that and “Wheels” are completely unrelated, how weird is it that the guy has two burrito-related songs to his name? Secondly, you’ll never guess who covered that same Flying Burrito Brothers song on his last album. If you said Frank Black, you’d be right.
What “Pete Yorn” the album puts on display, if anything, is that Yorn is a rather shapeless, faceless singer-songwriter that has gotten by on his sheer ability to write a pretty damn dynamic and catchy hook. His first four records were all about that, and both brought him pain and good fortune. The best fortune he could have gotten was in the form of “musicforthemorningafter”, his debut album, which was amazing in how it took all his best hooks and lyrics, leaving everything else in the dust as he scrambled to put together two more albums as part of a proposed “trilogy”. “Back and Fourth” was a recovery of sorts, no longer constrained by the conceptual nature of his prior three records, and allowing his band to do their fair share of heavy lifting on the instrumental side. Yet if the stories are indeed true, the main reason why Pete Yorn has been so “productive” these last couple years isn’t so much because he’s writing at a speedy pace but instead because so much of his material gets shelved. The second album Yorn released last year was “The Break Up”, a duets record with Scarlett Johansson. That had been gathering dust for a number of years before it was finally put out. Similarly, word on the street is that this new album was actually recorded with Frank Black prior to “Back and Fourth”, but the songs were held back, presumably because Columbia didn’t want to release them. Vagrant put them out, and the full painting finally comes into view, but like a Monet it’s just a bit blurry. Black largely succeeds in his mission to strip Yorn down to his most basic core, the problem is what we find upon going there. It’s a man in an identity crisis, unsure about life and love while allowing himself to be easily influenced by others (such as Frank Black). What suffers most because of this are the hooks, because even though a handful of choruses may surge and swell, not much of it remains memorable. Despite this, nothing sounds outright bad either. The good news is we get to explore this different side of Pete Yorn, and it’s one of the most interesting things he’s done in awhile. The bad news is interest gets lost with relative quickness and never picks back up. Best of luck to you Pete Yorn, hopefully you truly “get to know yourself” better before setting foot into a studio to record your next album.