Sunday, July 5, 2009

Back and Fourth - Pete Yorn

Back and Fourth

Pete Yorn
Columbia Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

As a thorough Pete Yorn fan, I’ve always been slightly irked by the knowledge that so many of his songs – many of which, my favourites – were written from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps I’ve grown accustomed to my self-obsessed songwriters of choice but it was difficult to understand someone’s interest in being a musician if they honest-to-god had nothing personal to say. Now I’m accepting of some wayward inspiration, like how 2006’s ‘How Do You Go On’ was written with his 90 year-old grandfather in mind, but it’s hard to pretend I didn’t once read an interview in which Yorn discussed how ‘Sense’ (my favourite off MusicForTheMorningAfter) was written to empathize with Hailey Joel Osmond’s character in The Sixth Sense. I know, deep down inside, I still haven’t made peace with that. So I was thrilled to read that Back and Fourth featured lyrics close to Yorn’s heart, written during a difficult period of relationship anxiety and self-imposed isolation. The results, first heard on single ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’, are a turning-point for a somewhat middling career, displaying the only perspective I want to hear on a Pete Yorn record – his.

What makes ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’ (and Back and Fourth as a whole) a success involves far more than a simple shift in songwriting perspective. Yorn made decisions: he abandoned his studio digs in Los Angeles for the rural plains of Omaha, Nebraska and enlisted producer Mike Mogis. As much as I kinda blamed Mogis for Cassadaga’s blatant overproduction, I was relieved to hear the album would be unified by one producer (as opposed to the FIVE who jumbled up Nightcrawler). With Mogis, who provides a breadth of instrumental wisdom, and a studio band in tow, Back and Fourth is the first Yorn record in which Yorn doesn’t play just about everything. The difference is unmistakable, particularly on ‘Four Years’, as haunting piano notes creep about a tragic narrative, and ‘Close’, where cautiously employed strings compliment Yorn’s sweetest track since ‘Crystal Village’. Each decision made – the change in scenery, in musicians, in songwriting and production – make this the artistic statement I feared impossible, one so cohesive it makes his “morning, day and night” trilogy seem positively coincidental by comparison.

What works so well here can be attributed to what went so wrong on Nightcrawler, a record that was both overproduced and undercooked, polished up and sloppy. Songs like ‘Vampyre’ and ‘Maybe You’re Right’ were undernourished while older, previously released tracks (one from the first Spiderman soundtrack, the other a Warren Zevon cover) were inexplicably tossed in. Some light was shed on this period in a recent interview, where Yorn reflected critically, insisting he had some “rockstar” tendencies he needed to grow out of. Whatever demons he needed to exorcise, Yorn sounds more dedicated to a sound than ever before; from the breezy escape of ‘Paradise Cove’ to the meditative loneliness of ‘Thinking of You’, Back and Fourth encompasses an acoustic plateau of scarred hearts, dusty memories and, eventually, some emotional redemption. Thematically, these feelings either show progress or withdraw. ‘Country’ reflects on the carefree, endless drives of a blossoming love, ‘Social Development Dance’ breaks it down to empty picture frames. Back and forth, indeed.

“You know I’d never lost before,” Yorn repeats at one point, and it’s a line that resonates like a riddle across his discography. Most critics would insist Yorn lost with Day I Forgot, a sophomore panned by all but his true fans. Others would claim Nightcrawler sealed his career with a public indifference, ensuring his early promise would never reemerge. As someone who enjoys all of Yorn’s work, I can’t deny that I’ll miss Yorn’s “rockstar” side, the persona that wrote ‘For Us’ and ‘Policies’… but I wouldn’t trade anything off this record (well, maybe 'Shotgun'...). However Yorn truly lost, the occasion clearly bolstered him with renewed energy, encouraging him to take risks beyond his control and seek inspiration from within. For these distinctions, Back and Fourth is easily Yorn’s darkest album, mourning the past as often as Yorn tries to deny it. For my money, it’s also his most affecting.


Trevor54 said...

Gotta say I disagree with the laments about him writing songs from others' perspectives: Aren't there enough songs out there by self-absorbed artists to fill that niche already? Also have to disagree with the comments about him sounding unpolished and such in Nightcrawler: IMHO it's the unpolished edginess that appeals to me in songs like: For Nancy, Maybe You're Right, and others that is one of Pete's strong suits. Makes you feel like you're almost listening to them at a concert and it sets a nice dynamic against his softer stuff.

SCQ said...

Mostly I'm excited for Pete's personal lyrics because he's rarely exhibited them before. Also, before I discovered that he wrote for characters in movies, I felt really attached to some of his lyrics and then a bit betrayed. You're right though: in general there is no shortage of emotional, self-absorbed songwriters.

About Nightcrawler: I actually say quite the opposite, that Nightcrawler is extremely polished, not unpolished. Funny enough, though; every since posting this review, I've meant to reevaluate some harsh things I wrote about that record so I may as well now. I still really dig that album but, compared to his other releases, this one feels unfocused.

Thanks for the input though... I always like hearing from Pete Yorn fans!