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It's hard to think of anything more starkly reliable than the ticking of a clock, but time is an untrustworthy thing. It feels like ages since we've had a proper Pete Yorn LP to dissect, though it's been just five years. And it seems like only yesterday that we first heard musicforthemorningafter, which came out back in 2001. Yorn's brand new album and Capitol Records debut, ArrangingTime, plays with the elasticity of the years both in between and since — it's not only a culmination of the Los Angeles by way of New Jersey artist's adventurous latter-day projects, but a return to his original leaner methods.
For the first time since 2003's Day I Forgot, producer R. Walt Vincent returns to help Yorn execute his most poised and diverse set of songs yet. ArrangingTime runs the gamut from elegiac folk to wasteland blues to upbeat, synth-kissed rock. Of course, some things never change. Yorn still plays the observer, stepping into characters — or his past selves from previous years — routing wistful poems and beatific visions through the weather-beaten voice of a man who's seen a few things in his time.
"I'll look at pictures of places I went, or things I did," says Yorn, "and I think, 'Look at how great that day was and you just missed it.' I think about the past and how much of it is a blur. The title of the album is a reminder to be present and within each song is a minor lesson about that. Time only gets faster as you get older."
We blinked and Yorn turned 40, but he isn't settling or slowing. If the extra-musical side of his last few years has been about anything, it is hard work. He's focused on personal growth, broken bad habits, learned to get out of his own way, and become more lithe to life's undulations. He got married. He gave the commencement address at alma mater Syracuse University (his speech was about running toward the stuff that makes you uncomfortable in life). And last year, after completing an acoustic tour without a backing band or a set list, he welcomed a child into this world.
"I was taking my life back," says Yorn. "It was back-to-back with the records, and I toured a lot. There used to be just one way to approach the road in my mind: fucking burn it out. I had to realize, 'Maybe I'm addicted to some things, and a little scared of adulthood.' I said, 'I want to tackle this.' Now, discipline feels better than excess."
As he prepares to release another album, it's clear his music has been shored up too. By one measure, another trick of time, Yorn's first three albums span a single day. The so-called "trilogy" — musicforthemorningafter, Day I Forgot, and Nightcrawler (2006) — captures the man's progression from an unknown songwriter unspooling raw magic at the storied Café Largo, to the sort of dude who can dial up Dave Grohl for a ripping drum solo and trade twanged verses with Natalie Maines. Those all found Yorn solo with a producer, building songs in the studio (or garage).
But for his last two, 2009's Back & Fourth and 2010's Pete Yorn, he did the session thing, stepping into readymade bands under the guidance of Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis and Pixies genius Frank Black, respectively. And those were bookended by collaborative projects: 2009's playful album-length duet with Scarlett Johansson, Break Up, and The Olms (2013), a sunny, '60s-styled retro-pop duo with J.D. King.
"I went on a run abandoning my first approach," says Yorn. "I was molting an old skin in a lot of ways. After that, it felt natural to come back to just letting it flow with Walt. I have no illusions: You can't walk through the same river twice. I'm not trying to recreate an album I made in my 20s. I'm revisiting a method. I started off doing watercolors, then I did sculpting. And now I'm back on watercolors."
But he does bring his experience with him to the looser style of his first producer, R. Walt Vincent (with work from a couple of others). ArrangingTime opener "Summer Was a Day" drops us into the desert at night — it's lush with shimmering ambience, swelling strings, ringing guitar strum and skittering beats. And while "In Your Head" juxtaposes Springsteen's heartland chug with Morrissey's dramatic softness, a song like "Shopping Mall" is just understated and pretty — spare on instrumentation and generous with emotion. Penultimate track "Tomorrow" is almost a dance cut, and Yorn's attempt to buck the singer-songwriter trend of the album-ending slow fade.
ArrangingTime flows like a mixtape with Yorn's warm voice and perspective as the through-line. These 12 songs are populated by fragmented folks: people waiting for something to happen (the bus-stop sitter in the dreamy "Halifax"), or chasing a feeling they once had (the angsty burnout in the raucous "Screaming at the Setting Sun"). But it's not all so bleak — light seeps through the cracks in "I'm Not the One," where our host morphs into a loner coming to terms with his self-imposed isolation.
"I'm an observer," says Yorn. "I'm into subtleties, the moments between moments, but I don't pretend to know where all the ideas come from. I try to clear myself, create a melody and let that emotion dictate what comes out. I like my own songs when I haven't even figured them out yet. I'm into the mysterious part of the process."
But we're still allowed to guess at the hidden lessons of ArrangingTime. In the case of the characters above, one's stuck on the future, one's trapped in the past, and the other's learning to be present. The ambling "Walking Up" acknowledges outcomes both negative and positive as neutral — the titular act is what's important: facing the challenge, eyes open, in the moment. Because as seemingly treacherous as that tick-tock, tick-tock can be, it's not time that's changeable. It's the timekeeper.