ife on a Chain”, the opening track and lead single from singer-songwriter Pete Yorn’s debut album, musicforthemorningafter, begins with a crackly, grainy, Victrola effect, as Yorn sings, “I live on a chain / and you have the same last name, / as a joke I sent a bottle of whiskey, / as you choked, / I knew it made you feel dirty.” His voice is deep and husky with a hint of delicate yearning and angst. The feel of his voice and the pops of the vinyl gloriously combine to kick off a delightful album from the most promising male singer-songwriter since Jeff Buckley.
In rock terms, Pete Yorn is a conservative, a nostalgic. His brand of pop rock hearkens back to the luminaries of upfront, confessional, emotional songwriting. There are echoes of Lou Reed, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen, while in more contemporary terms, Yorn is in the same universe as early Beck, Grandaddy, and Elliott Smith. Not that Yorn is a rip-off artist—if anything, he is sound is fresh and original. Original in the T.S. Eliot sense. He is well versed in the culture and tradition of rock that is reflected in his songs—they are wonderfully recognizable. The kind of songs you could swear you’ve heard before but in fact you haven’t.
The most exciting thing about Yorn, separating him from other aspiring singer-songwriters such as Smith or Rufus Wainwright, is that his music has kick to it. This is not your typical, laid-back, lazy, shmoozy, boring folk rock. “Life on a Chain” may begin with a folksy bouncy acoustic guitar, but this soon morphs into a warm blanket of R.E.M.-esque electric guitars and well-placed, appropriate electronic effects. “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is)” is a straight-out electric rocker, sounding like an imaginary union between Crazy Horse and Blur with its blaring guitars and electronic beats. musicforthemorningafter continually subverts the singer-songwriter conventions that we have all come to abhor-while his primary subject is, yes, love, his approach is anything but maudlin. He may have learned his songwriting tricks from Bruce and Neil, but he picked up his licks while listening to the Beck, Nirvana, and the rest of the ‘90s luminaries.
The most distinctive aspect of Yorn’s music, however, is his voice. It is a rich, sonorous baritone, scratchy and rusted, worn yet vibrant. Try to imagine a mix of the scratch of Beck and Cobain combined with the laziness of Lou Reed. Nowhere is the Reed connection more clear than on the album’s centerpiece, the grooving piano ballad “Lose You”. As the slow, kicking drum track halts after the chorus, a lone piano remains with Yorn singing, tired and weary, sounding as if he is falling asleep, “I’m gonna lose ya, / if I’m gonna lose ya, / I’ll lose you now for good.” The effect is immediate, penetrating intimacy reminiscent of the Velvet’s “Pale Blue Eyes” or Young’s “Cortez the Killer”. At that moment, only two things exist in the universe—you, and, somehow, Yorn, jumping out of the stereo and wrapping himself around your heart and never letting go. The tracks fades out with a synthesizer bouncing from its lowest to its highest octave paired with a majestic organ, elevating Yorn’s melancholy laziness on a glorious ladder of cascading sound.
This is an amazingly impressive debut, but it is not perfect. Clocking in at over 50 minutes and boasting 14 songs, musicforthemorningafter is a little too much—after while all the songs start to sound the same and the assault of guitars gets bothersome, the lovelorn melancholy a bit whiny. But Yorn is a gem. There is real talent here. If Yorn can continue to mold his classic influences into his own brand of pop rock, we could have a serious artist on our hands. He has the skill, he has the voice, he has the studio tact (in fact, much like Paul McCartney, he plays most of the instruments on the album). The only question is does he have the vision to rise above late ‘90s slacker angst and, like Reed, Young, and Springsteen, form a more transcendent, timeless worldview that would separate him from all the two-bit singer songwriters flooding college radio stations today?