Pete Yorn

Nightcrawler

(Columbia; 2006)

By Craig Eley | 8 September 2006

Everyone I have talked to in the past week while thinking about this album, including members of the CMG staff, has had the exact same response: “New album? No kidding. You know, I genuinely liked Musicforthemorningafter...” The need to apologize for liking Pete Yorn (and also kind of forgetting he existed) is certainly due to his second album, which added whole new meanings to the word “bland,” but I suspect it is also due to the fact that this guy has been mainstream as hell from the word “go.” It’s hard to champion someone who landed his first record deal with Columbia in 2001, a year that will live in infamy for producing Lifehouse. But Yorn was an exceptionally gifted songwriter who rose to the top of the shit pile of Dawson’s Creek-rock, and his debut was drenched in hooks and heartbreak that not only worked at the time but offered promise for his future.

After 2003’s disastrous Day I Forgot, it seemed as if Pete was “hangin’ by a moment,” and that moment had passed. His lapse into mediocrity was so severe that, for me at least, it cast doubts on his previous accomplishments. Was he really good, or was I just filled with heartbreak and longing at the time? Was it just better than everything else I was listening to at the time? Check that first paragraph again: nobody likes Pete Yorn; they liked his record. Using the past tense freezes the album in its historical moment, distances the speaker from his or her feelings on the album, and makes it an artifact of the turn of the century, rather than a living, breathing album that grows and develops with you.

Nightcrawler is the remedy to the collective uncertainty cast by Day I Forgot’s giant shadow of mediocrity: it’s a “solid record” that highlights Yorn’s potential as a songwriter and craftsman, underplays many of his weaknesses, and firmly situates him within the category of Rock Troubadours Who Are Still Worth Paying Attention To. This time he’s enlisted Butch Walker for production duties, which is as ridiculous as it is perfect. Walker has worked with Pink, Avril, and Lindsay Lohan, and his transition to Yorn makes sense: he allows Pete to be the pop star that he is. The album feels expansive but not epic—in a word, free—as it moves from guitar-pop (“For You”) to country (“The Man”) to the Talking Heads-meets-‘80s-Kinks (“Georgie Boy”).

“Vampyre” opens with a slight vocal treatment that forces recollections of “Life on a Chain,” but achieves something entirely different. The lyrics hint at a lingering juvenile sensibility (“They don’t even care about us / in the backs of their cars”), but the song carries some serious pathos and moves from haunted acoustic strumming with booming drums to an electric-guitar fueled screamer. Already it topples the emotional and musical impact of the entirety of Day I Forgot, and as such is about as effective an opener as one could hope for.

“For You” is radio-friendly pap, featuring Dave Grohl on the most meaningless drum part of his career, but it sets the stage for “Undercover,” easily the album’s standpoint and maybe even worthy of your next mixtape. It has a great melody, a lovelorn Yorn and introduces synthesized percussive elements that work surprisingly well, and pop up on various tracks for the rest of the album. “The Man” is a stunning country number featuring a Dixie Chick, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous: piano and violin and some synth elements compliment the fantastic vocal interplay of the two. It’s not a duet (thank God), and what Yorn might lack in terms of songwriting (especially when compared to Ryan Adams, which I’ve always thought was a tad unfair) he more than makes up in melodic sensibility.

“Splendid Isolation” is a Warren Zevon cover that also appeared on 2004’s tribute to the guy, and appropriately features the album’s most straightforward rock production, with a whole lot of guitars and Yorn (finally) stripping all the hints of Vedder from his voice to reveal the stunning and rich voice that he actually has. This type of stretching out and opening up (this is the first song not written by Yorn to appear on one of his albums) is, strangely, what has allowed him to come more fully into his own. Certainly, some things here are pretty mundane and retreads of other ideas (“Same Thing” and “Broken Bottle” most obviously), but Yorn has allowed himself some freedom from his own (self-imposed?) restrictions to find his voice, literal and figurative. While this album will, I imagine, gain Yorn very few new fans, it serves a much more important task: allowing all of us closeted Yorn lovers to breath a collective sigh of relief.