Ten years after releasing his eponymous debut, musicforthemorningafter, New Jersey’s second or third favourite son, Pete Yorn has brushed the dust off his sessions with Pixies front man Frank Black – which predated 2009’s Back And Fourth – to release the most rock ‘n’ roll album of his career. And perhaps it’s appropriate that five albums in, he’s felt the need to self-title this one, imbuing it with the sense that the music contained herein is Pete Yorn: messy, confused but awkwardly straightforward, and manic in its restless energy.
Yorn’s done his time with perfect production and impeccably performed studio tracks; he’s done his time with pristine, multi-layered guitars and keyboards; he’s done Brit-pop and he’s done country. This time round, Frank Black has put Yorn out on the ledge and prodded him to jump if he feels twitchy. He’s forced Yorn to strip away all the comforts and sweat in the spotlight on his own.
The result is at times difficult to listen to, so glaring is its sincerity, but it’s also an example of what wonderful things can happen when a producer oversteps his bounds just enough to kick new life into an artist’s performance. Yorn’s songs have always been showcases for his lyrics, but here he seems to have thrown aside all efforts at pretense to turn in something uncertain and honest.
Yorn and Black make their approach clear from the opener, Precious Stone, whose messy guitar solo causes a complete collapse as the rhythm section falls out. This break would have felt head-scratchingly out of place on an earlier PY record, but here it sets the tone for a new modus operandi, one free of concerns for tired pop aesthetics.
Rock Crowd finds Yorn issuing a call for support from his fans, the only ones capable of shaking him to life, and while its refrain can feel a bit grinningly cheesy, its sentiment is stark in its discontentedness with daily life. Velcro Shoes finds Yorn lamenting the end of childish simplicity, juxtaposing lyrics about “PB and J cut up in squares of four,” and “The faceless man who hides behind closed doors”.
Badman rocks harder than anything else here, and its subject matter is challenging: Yorn confronts his feelings about mistreating women. Sans Fear features a lovely, beachy falsetto refrain and the confession that “normalcy just don’t agree with me. I just hate this big disguise”. Paradise Cove I is another take on a tune from Back And Forth, noisier� and sketched out roughly to match the Frank Black aesthetic, and it works nicely, hyperactive drumming and all.
Always is perhaps the greatest departure for Yorn with its big, arena-ready sing-along refrain and sledgehammer power chords. Stronger Than brings Yorn back to the sort of acoustic singer-songwriter territory he covered so well on Back And Forth, and presents the seemingly central truth to Yorn’s way of thinking this time round: “I gotta know myself before I know someone else.”
So, Frank Black’s reduced Pete Yorn to his core, but in all, it feels as if Black’s stamp has left too thick a smudge on the music. Yorn is arguably among the finest songwriters of his time and place, but his constant, frenetic work ethic have made him into something of a chameleon, never sure, and never sounding quite like his old self since Nightcrawler. Here, we’ve got an album that kind of sums up Yorn’s journey; this scruffy batch of songs is as exciting as anything Yorn’s done in the last decade.