Pete Yorn has never been incredibly upbeat. Sure he had his moments on major-label debut musicforthemorningafter, sophomore slump Day I Forgot and 2006's Nightcrawler, but his mumbling vocal drone has always made the mood somewhat nocturnal, plodding and downtrodden. His latest album Back and Fourth takes those traits to a whole new level. Working alongside Mike Mogis and executive producer Rick Rubin, Yorn strips away the electric guitar and sharp hooks in favor of dusty, bar room ballads. Lead single 'Don't Wanna Cry,' is a rather ho-hum choice for first single and an incredibly uninspiring album opener. Equally disappointing is the unimaginative 'Last Summer,' in which he sings, 'We were there last summer, it was fresh as the ocean, we were great last summer, we cannot go back again.' Really, Pete? What is this, tenth-grade?
For most of his career, Yorn has displayed a knack for simple pop prettiness, an ability to do a lot with spartan keyboards, guitars and drums. There was a carnival-like fizz as he regaled the woes of his somber heart. Other times his rock was rousing and cutthroat, and on the sparse ballads he seemed to bring the songs down to their molecular structure. It was irresistible, catchy and filled with love, joy, heart and ambition. Back and Fourth possesses none of those traits. Yes, Yorn once again executes with confidence and precision, but the brooding mood is a bit too much.
While there is a simple vibe here that hearkens back to Simon and Garfunkel or The Byrds, that's not exactly the kind of music Yorn has driven to success. While he's admitted, 'I think I've been living my teenage, rocked-out fantasy for a long time, and I had some growing up to do,' the results are somewhat muddled. This album isn't a total wash by any stretch. 'Thinking Of You,' sounds awfully parallel to Conor Oberst and 'Country,' is probably one of Yorn's all-time bests. The album's other bright spots include the breezy and summery 'Paradise Cove' in which he sings about a 'white trash beach' and the funereal 'Social Development Dance,' in which he mourns the loss of a friend by writing, 'I Googled you in quotes, got no results.'
Yorn's decision to shift towards something simpler and stripped down comes at a pivotal time in his career. Later this year he'll release a duets album with Scarlett Johanssen and that release paired with this one represent a sea change of sorts for Yorn's sonic landscape. On prior albums, Yorn used to play all the instruments but instead he's divvied up the responsibilities to a slew of seasoned studio musicians, including but not limited to: Joey Waronker, Nae Wolcott, Jonny Polonsky, Joe Karnes and Orenda Fink. That shift in strategy actually hinders the work here. While the album is supposed to be more personal and intimate, the results are the exact opposite. The songs feel more distant, withdrawn and alien.
If he's truly done with his 'rocked-out fantasy' than the days of songs like 'Closet' and 'Crystal Village' are nothing but ancient history, and that my friend is what they call, a letdown. For now, that's exactly what Back and Fourth is, one colossal letdown.