There has always been something vaguely disappointing about Pete Yorn. It’s hard to put a finger on, but his first three albums flattered to deceive for all the pretty melodies and emotive songwriting on offer.
Before the record has even hit the platter the signs are encouraging for Back & Fourth. Saddle Creek associate Mike Mogis is in charge of production and Rick Rubin is credited as an executive producer, while drummer Joey Waronker, guitarist Jonny Polonsky and vocalist Orenda Fink provide support.
This is a bold move for Yorn, who has ridden largely solo on his previous albums. The lush folk rock harmonies and mournful brass on lead single Don’t Wanna Cry serve to expand Yorn’s musical vision, and this sound is revisited on other radio-friendly tracks such as Paradise Cove, Close, Long Time Nothing New and Country.
Yorn has never been the most natural of lyricists (those earlier albums contained some glaring missteps), but on Back & Fourth he exhibits a welcome maturity that finds hard-worn regret and failure the most natural forms of expression. “When you talk it makes me cringe/You want so bad to have meaning/But you’re empty and draining” is a perfect pay-off line in the summer love song gone wrong Paradise Cove.
Yorn has talked in interviews about a ‘difficult’ period in his life following the release of 2006’s Nightcrawler, and although Back & Fourth sounds absolutely spanking it is a downbeat record full of self-doubt and melancholic regret. The knotty lyrics of Social Development Dance constantly lay little time-bombs under the conventional boy meets girl set-up and indicate the progression Yorn has made as a lyricist in recent years.
The music on Back & Fourth is a delight from start to finish. Mogis (and presumably Rubin) has done a fine job in corralling all the usual Yorn references (The Byrds, Jeff Buckley, The Cure) into a more cohesive effort. Here, the Johnny Marr-style guitars on Last Summer and Country actually sound like a pleasant surprise rather than a default setting.
Yorn is progressing with age into a rival for Ryan Adams in the retro rocker stakes, and the ’60s sounding folk and country rock references fit him a hell of a lot better than his earlier homages to ’80s Britrock. Only occasionally does he stray into pastiche, most notably on the Conor Oberst aping Thinking Of You that is just too close for comfort to the Saddle Creek status quo.
The closing piano ballad Long Time Nothing New plays the album out on a delicately poised note of repression and escape. It is a dynamic that plays throughout Back & Fourth, giving credence to the album’s title. A marker in Yorn’s career for sure, the album is also his best to date and a promising sign for the future.