The perfect soundtrack for dusk, heartbreak and confusion.
Pete Yorn, arguably most famous for soundtracking a beloved character’s funeral in the TV show House (‘Lose You’) or for covering the Buzzcocks for the Shrek 2 soundtrack (‘Ever Fallen In Love’), somehow never quite gained the prominence perhaps deserved to him, in spite of having previously recorded music with one of Hollywood’s pre-eminent actors, Scarlett Johansson. And now he’s back with another collection of music made in collaboration with her.
The collaboration is not an obvious one. First and foremost, it was certainly unexpected when the two first announced their first collaborative album, Break Up. A Hollywood megastar, by the time the album was recorded Johansson had already starred in such films as ‘The Prestige,’ ‘Lost in Translation,’ ‘Scoop,’ and ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring.’ By this point she had already released what was essentially a Tom Waits cover album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, in spite of it having been recorded after the material on Break Up was recorded. And then there’s Pete Yorn, an indie darling, multi-instrumentalist famed for playing most of the instrumental parts on his albums, with six albums (not including the Scarlett Johansson collaborations) under his belt, many of which were critically acclaimed and placed in “Best of the Year” lists. So, they’re both fairly good at their jobs, and both clearly have strong musical interests or passions. And they made an album together. And now an EP. Stay tuned for the tour?
As far as the EP goes, it’s largely, unfortunately, underwhelming. Tracks are well produced and largely lyrically sound. Yorn’s voice and Johansson’s voice layer gorgeously when they duet with a very Paul McCartney/John Lennon honey and vinegar vibe. But nothing particularly stands out. As a break-up album it contains few moments that break the listener’s heart, and the final song, an attempt at an uplifting message and cheery send-off, comes across as underdone and cheesy.
The EP kicks off with what Yorn calls “the opening question that really sets up the whole concept of the record” when he sings, on ‘Iguana Bird,’ “Do you like how you’re soending your time?/ Do you like how you’re living your life away from me?” It is in multiple ways the post break-up album: post romantic break-up and exploring the time apart that the couple will now have to face, and post Break Up as the first work the collaborative team have done since the album. The track most succeeds when it explores some of the darkness that can come in the wake of a break-up or heartbreak. The constant repetition of the song’s refrain, “L-l-l-l-l-l-love you” borders on obsession as the protagonist, so upended by the breakup, holds tight to possibility and now unrequited love. It’s a well-meaning refrain that nonetheless unnerves wonderfully. The follow-up track, ‘Bad Dreams’ is a brooding rock track that drives through the night finding the troubled and sleepless, hoping they find solace in the fact that “we will always have bad dreams” because, as Yorn says, “once you accept that there will always be shit to deal with in life… it kind of makes life easier.” The repetition of “we will always have bad dreams” here (repetition being a common tool across the EP, more so than in a traditional chorused or hook-containing song) manages to move from sounding like a denial-tinged acceptance of negativity to a sort of mantra of well-meaning.
‘Movies,’ the third track on the EP, is easily the best track on the EP with a vocal delivery that sounds like someone harbouring a strong emotional secret that they want to let out slowly and quietly, murmuring the song through tight lips and clenched jaw. When, during the verse, Pete Yorn sings by himself, without Scarlett Johansson backing him up, “I know I disappoint you” it’s the most beautifully fragile moment of the song itself and the whole EP. Coupled together with a brief, breathy little guitar solo at the end, ‘Movies’ is the most perfect encapsulation, on Apart at least, of Pete Yorn’s abilities as a heart-wrenching performer and composer. Followed up by ‘Cigarillo’ and ‘Tomorrow (Remix),’ which is really more of a duet cover of a prior-released song by Yorn, the EP never quite reaches that same emotional peak of ‘Movies.’ Both start off with raw, demo-like sounds that resolve, as the song builds, into slick, electronic beats and melodies. ‘Cigarillo’ has some affecting lyrics from Yorn, such as the chorus (“I wanna get by without you/It’s a long long time since I knew you”), which concerns itself with not wanting to be sad about a lost love but not being able to help yourself. ‘Tomorrow (Remix),’ perhaps in keeping with its remix nature, plasters a strange vocal processing over Johansson’s voice that turns it into a robotic, distant sound that sticks out alongside Yorn’s deeper, more soulful vocals. It’s a pretty cheesy though. Electronic beats and melodies flicker alongside what is clearly meant to be an uplifting and inspirational song containing lyrics such as “tomorrow is another day” and “There’s so much of this world I never see/ In front of me/ Far too much of this world we’ve never been.” It feels empty. It comes across as a meaningless life-quote plastered across a picture of a mountain, shared on social media. More has to be said than just empty words; the listener doesn’t quite get the lyrical content they’ve come to expect from Yorn, with new insights or painfully obvious sentiments that nonetheless aren’t often expressed.
Long time listeners of Pete Yorn may be frustrated by Apart. It never really seems to dive into the depths of post-break-up emotion that it could. While the “L-l-l-l-l-l-love you” refrain of ‘Iguana Bird’ may worm its way into your head momentarily, and while the desolation of a muttered “I know I disappoint you” may ring, the pathos of older songs such as ‘Lose You,’ or ‘Ice Age,’ or even just the infectiously upbeat and catchy Buzzcocks cover, stand out far more. But then, is it fair to compare an artist’s work to their earlier output? Is it not reductive to sink into the marsh of “I liked their older stuff more?” It is still a gorgeous selection of songs, the perfect soundtrack for dusk heartbreak and confusion. A soundtrack for neon-lit walks in towns you don’t know that well and might never visit again.
An edited copy of this review can be found at https://giglist.com/scarlett-johansson-pete-yorn-apart