By the retro, sixties-era artwork of Back & Fourth--Pete Yorn's latest that, yes, is his fourth studio go-round on the Columbia superlabel--you get a hint that someone wants this music taken seriously. It's not that the production cues or songs are throwbacks to that decade, but there is a conscious presentation of this being a fully-fleshed out new "classic" album, and with executive producer Rick Rubin in the mix, you just know that was the mission. And as mainstream as this project might seem to Yorn's older fans, that's a good thing, because the songwriting is his strongest since his debut album musicforthemorningafter, benefiting hugely from Mike Mogis' sonic re-introduction and further exploration of what this artist truly is about.
There is much more potential CW song placement here (the network, not the musical genre), but Back & Fourth mainly provides an acoustic Nudie suit for Yorn's sound by taking the slightest of glances at the sixties via The Byrds (and even Donovan), especially on tracks like "Social Development Dance." During that song, we're told, "We went to the social development dance, the whiskey went down easily." Sounds pretty normal...except for that whole "social development dance" part (but we get it). Then a hair later comes, "When your boyfriend called, you pressed against the wall," its melody and melancholy vibe setting-up something more Simon & Garfukel, and practically conjuring scenes involving Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross.
It all sounds pretty groovy, right? Well, no, all was not well in Yornland, and the album was the result of the artist surviving a battle with his inner demons post the Nightcrawler period. He told Billboard, "I just think I had been living my teenage, rocked-out fantasy for a long time, and I had some growing up to do." Though we wouldn't call these recordings the result of a new "maturity," they are obviously the most thoughtfully-conceived and heartfelt works of Yorn's career. His stories are more layered, such as when singing about a summer girl in "Paradise Cove" (featuring lush obligatos by Orenda Fink and great guitar figures by Jonny Polonsky). In this song, Yorn explains, "I got what I wanted when you showed up," in what could have been merely a cheesed-out vacation scene starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But immediately, he bites, "When you talk, it makes me cringe, you want so bad to have meaning, but you're empty and draining." (Picture Danny singing that to Sandy.) Then he reweighs the relationship when he admits, "I know I shouldn't care, but your life's intersected when mine's disconnected," displaying a little of that "back" and "forth" of this record's creative pendulum swings.
Now, if there was anything to get a teensy bit concerned over, it's how close Yorn sounds to Conor Oberst on the minimally-constructed "Thinking Of You" that is a virtual voice match. That has to be the result of working with Bright Eyes' alumni such as pianist and arranger, Nate Wolcott, and producer Mike Mogis...oh, and recording the project in Omaha, Nebraska, on Saddle Creek turf. But we likey this troop, no complaints about the creative team nor that ridiculously fertile, middle-American musical workshop. The point's trivial considering that this latest 10-track excursion, with all its little influences scattered about, is the most original of all of Yorn's previous in-studio constructs. (Fans might want to revisit the acoustic numbers on Live From New Jersey since they sound like rehearsals for Back & Fourth's intimacy, particularly on tracks like "Atlantic City/Murray.") Loaded with standouts such as "Country," "Paradise Cove," and "Long Time Nothing New," plus potential hits like the lead single, "Don't Wanna Cry," as well as "Last Summer" and the lovely "Close," Back & Fourth is Pete Yorn's best shot yet at firmly establishing himself as one of those recording artists whose level of success is off the charts...or at least at the top of them.
This album is very strong, and one might wonder what Pete Yorn's career trajectory might have been had it started with this release--though you really do need those previous records for their many essential tracks and to hear Yorn developing his art. In this album's best recording and closest Byrds and Gin Blossoms contender, "Last Summer," Yorn sings, "We were there last summer, it was fresh as the ocean, we were great last summer...we cannot go back again," and we really don't have to since this project pretty much hits the restart button. And the best part of Back & Fourth is that each song contains that motion--as if the sunnier the melody is and recorded elements sound, the more intense the subject matter. Nice trick, and it's that creative gravity of the musical space between that keeps Back & Fourth mesmerizing, in perpetual alt-pop motion, and on course as one of the best albums of 2009.
Don't Wanny Cry
Social Development Dance
Thinking Of You
Long Time Nothing New
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008