Back & Fourth
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Pete Yorn delivers regret and resolve like a wounded romantic’s putative king. His seduction’s contagious. “I don’t want to cry for you/There’s nothing left to lose,” he sings on this album’s opening anthem “Don’t Wanna Cry.” “If it can make me feel better/I’m gonna cry, cry for you/Turn the lights down low and close the door/Try to feel the way I felt before.” Let’s assume that’s footloose and fancy-free. After all, the Southern California-based songwriter has ridden this lovelorn wave before.
Consider: For nearly a decade, Yorn has turned broken glass into sunlight, exacted freedom from quavering highway signs, run wild. He’s whispered breathy promises broken. Bought whiskey. Cried. Yorn’s conflicted protagonists offer assurances, but they fit into flying shoes at dawn. By happy hour, they’ve stitched their shopworn and bromidic tales into slick novellas boasting ocean vistas and a swooshing West Coast breeze. Young ladies brace for pickup lines, yet nearly every smile cracked swoons. Perhaps hangovers retreat before daybreak.
His sketches can be a bit too enchanting. His landscapes too incandescent: Blues (“Four Years”) and yellows (“Last Summer”) often require shades. Yorn’s heroes-slightly less flawed than those Ryan Adams fashions (“Long Time Nothing New”), more vulnerable than Rhett Miller’s (“Country”)-rarely stray from script. Of course, listeners want to believe. It’s a solid formula. Unfortunately, Yorn unearths little unconventional wisdom. He’s come close before: The Jersey native debuted with the fuzz-box high watermark, “Life on a Chain,” eight years ago, and “The Man,” a rolling cascade fortified by Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ buoyant harmonies, resonated deeply.
Yorn’s early work suffers from an enabled egocentricity, but he clearly attempts to establish a truer sense of self on Back & Fourth. Key element: Directing forethought externally. “I think I had been living my teenage rocked-out fantasy for a long time and I had some growing up to do,” he told Billboard.com in March, “which led up to the fertile ground for writing.” The new formula: Escape to the gone side of Los Angeles. Focus lyrically. Instill heartland craftsmanship (Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis). Exit a more literate, matured songsmith.
Yorn, at times, takes one step back for every two forward, a journey amounting to nearly as much retread as reinvention. Indeed, entire swatches of Back & Fourth-most egregiously, the opening trio (“Don’t Wanna Cry,” “Paradise Cove,” “Close”)-feel like a facsimile of his already established blueprint. Yorn promises eyes open to the future, but “Shotgun” scratches dirty guitars that boomerang 15 years to Exile in Guyville-era Liz Phair. They’re frustrating near misses, but strong strides forward, nonetheless.
He does unarguably pierce one bull’s eye. “I heard you were staying up north with a friend/And that your hair was falling out,” Yorn sings over a spiky mandolin on the clean-up positioned “Social Development Dance.” “I tried to find out what had happened to you/I Googled you in quotes, [but] got no results.” She died. Few songs cut as clean a line to life’s blindsiding betrayal.