Last month, a friend had warned me that the new Jane’s Addiction single was awful. He was right. A subsequent search on YouTube to look up “Irresistible Force (Met the Immovable Object)” ended with the discovery of a bland, largely tuneless exercise in modern-day modern rock, made worse by the decision to affix the track to a “lyric video”, thus ensuring that Perry Farrell’s woeful verses about everyone being stars going supernova or some nonsense could not be ignored no matter how hard I tried.
The accompanying album The Great Escape Artist (the group’s first since 2003, maintaining the steady “one studio LP per decade” example it’s been following since the 1980s) is very much of the same cloth as its lead single, in that virtually every song is a restrained mid-tempo slog (transparently tailored to the more unadventurous modern rock radio playlists of 2011) that can, in the most charitable mood, be described as unremarkable. One might be forgiven for hoping that with the long periods the Los Angeles alt-rock group maintains between full-lengths that it would have ample time to draft up material capable of meshing adequately enough with cuts from Nothing’s Shocking (1988) and Ritual de lo Habitual (1990), even if the end product couldn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder to those creative summits. No such luck here, as these ten tracks are barely memorable, with precious little to distinguish one from the other.
A lot of the blame for the album’s distinctly undistinguished personality can be heaped upon guitarist Dave Navarro’s weak excuses for riffs. Navarro has a reputation for being a dynamite virtuoso (stories abound of the teenage instrumentalist being able to play anything one could name from the classic rock canon upon request), but as an ideas’ man, he’s unimpressive. The Great Escape Artist finds Navarro deploying unremarkable chord progressions, squalling single-note lines that feel like placeholders for better licks he has yet to come up with, and textural sonics that not so much as add atmosphere as blend completely into the background. Despite his guitar god status, Navarro was never the best riff-writer in Jane’s Addiction — founding bassist Eric Avery was, being responsible for Jane’s Addiction standards including “Mountain Song”, “Jane Says”, and “Summertime Rolls”. Unfortunately, as on the last LP Strays, Avery has opted not to rejoin the oft-tempestuous Jane’s fold. Instead his duties are fulfilled by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and Strays veteran Chris Chaney, two men who appear to have no problem being pushed to the bottom of producer Rich Costey’s thick aural soup.
Without Avery’s simple yet inspired musical ideas and with Navarro and typically-astonishing drummer Stephen Perkins content to play supporting roles, The Great Escape Artist unsurprisingly becomes “The Perry Farrell Show”, as the songs are forced to rely on Farrell’s prominently-mixed vocal meanderings for any semblance of hooks. Ever the spotlight-hogging peacock, the frontman somehow squanders the opportunity afforded to him: once in a while he’ll do a neat trick like his outro falsetto to “I’ll Hit You Back”, but most of the time Farrell is content to recite his self-indulgent lyrics in an overly serious and methodical manner (or in the case of “Irresistible Force”, a laughably ponderous rumble). Only the refreshingly fast “Words Right Out of My Mouth” recalls the abandon of vintage Jane’s by speeding things up for the record’s conclusion — just make sure to skip past the first few seconds to avoid a hokey dialogue section featuring Farrell and what appears to be a psychiatrist.
It might be tempting to deride The Great Escape Artist solely as a latter-day desecration of Jane’s Addiction’s former glory, but the truth is that the band was always kind of overrated. Though the group in its prime was a sight to behold as a live force when drugs weren’t interfering and the original rhythm section of Avery and Perkins harnessed a compelling chemistry in and out of the studio, Farrell’s voice was noticeably thin and limited, Navarro’s guitar work often sounded insubstantial on record, and the group’s arty posturing veered as much toward pseudo-profound pretentiousness as it did visionary brilliance. Two decades later, a blatantly coasting Jane’s Addiction isn’t even trying to transcend its shortcomings. With Costey’s 21st century modern rock production, everything on this album is blown up a dense roar that in its attempt to overwhelm with volume cannot obscure how dull the songs really are. For a band that in its heyday went out of its way make itself stand out from the crowd, The Great Escape Artist makes Jane’s Addiction sound like a bunch of faceless, unambitious nobodies.