Happy 15th Anniversary to Pete Yorn’s debut album musicforthemorningafter, originally released March 27, 2001.
Since my pre-teen adolescence, I’ve been magnetically attracted to record stores, content as a clam to spend hours upon hours perusing their wares. No matter how big or how small, these shops are my temples of Zen, where I can revel in blissful escapism while feeding my insatiable music obsession. Sometimes I know precisely which records I’m on the prowl for and seek them out with dogged determination. But oftentimes I have no preconceived agenda and simply enjoy discovering what’s new or what I may have overlooked upon previous shopping sprees.
Such was the case that spring morning back in 2001, as I, nursing a mild but manageable hangover from the night before, strolled the aisles of one of my most beloved haunts, the massive four-story Tower Records on the corner of East 4th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Upon exploring the new release display near the store’s entrance, my eye was drawn to a black and white image of a moppy-haired, good-looking dude gazing stoically into the distance. Pete Yorn. The name seemed vaguely familiar to me, and I remembered that I had recently read a blurb about him in Rolling Stone, which identified him among a handful of new artists destined to break through sooner than later. musicforthemorningafter. The title seemed fitting enough, in light of my moderately cloudy mindstate at that moment, so I scooped the disc up and brought it back home to my Brooklyn apartment.
As I embarked upon my initial listen to Yorn’s debut LP, I harbored no expectations beyond mere curiosity. But what I heard was an unanticipated revelation, and musicforthemorningafter became a record I played incessantly and recommended to friends frequently for months thereafter. As a 23 year-old still only months removed from relocating to New York City from Los Angeles, I took solace in the youthful restlessness that Yorn, 26 years old at the time, conjures across the album, in his attempts to reconcile whether he’s a hopeful or hopeless romantic. Ultimately, across the entirety of the album, Yorn seems to suggest that it’s perfectly forgivable to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, as best evidenced by reflective lines such as “Waiting for a bottle of truth / I'm just a lonely guy in my youth” from the soaring track “Black.”
A multi-dimensionally gifted musician and lyricist, the New Jersey bred, Syracuse University educated Yorn cut his early performance teeth in L.A.’s clubs in the mid to late ‘90s. Most notably, Yorn played frequently at West Hollywood’s Largo, the renowned venue of choice for aspiring and established singer-songwriters including Fiona Apple, Ben Folds, Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, the late Elliott Smith, and Jon Brion, who has hosted a Friday night residency at the club for years.
After gradually making a name for himself across the L.A. club scene, Yorn scored his first big break when he was commissioned by film producer Bradley Thomas to write the film score for the 2000 Jim Carrey film Me, Myself & Irene (Yorn’s “Strange Condition” was also included on the film’s soundtrack). Soon thereafter, Yorn signed a recording deal with Columbia Records, based on the label’s instinctual belief in his myriad talents. "It was just a gut feeling," Columbia GM Will Botwin admitted during a 2001 Billboard interview. "The guy is just good. It's that simple. I had no idea about where the record was gonna go in terms of his potential commercially. But I knew right away [that I should sign him]. It was a matter of, 'We'll figure it out later. Let's just agree that we're going to do something now.'"
With the newfound backing of one of the world’s most powerful record companies, Yorn set out to work on crafting his debut song suite with producers R. Walt Vincent (Liz Phair, Tommy Keene) and Brad Wood (Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt) in the cozy confines of Vincent’s Culver City garage studio. Despite the potential pressures that are typically par for the course for a fledgling artist with a major recording contract, the creative process proved to be a relatively unencumbered and liberating one for Yorn. “There’s an innocence to [musicforthemorningafter] sonically and it reflects who I was at the time,” he explained to BrooklynVegan in 2006. “When I hear it, and I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but if I hear a song come on I think, 'Wow, I sound so much younger' or 'I sound like a kid.' It was a very organic affair. No one had any impressions of me and I didn’t have any thoughts in my mind about what people would expect from me. I just wanted to make music that I liked and that I enjoyed and that moved me, I guess.”
The end result of Yorn’s unfettered ambition is an undeniably self-assured mélange of rock, folk, and pop, with electronic flourishes and insanely catchy hooks throughout. A raspy yet lucid vocalist, even Yorn would likely agree that he is not the most technically gifted singer by any stretch of the imagination. But his unique phrasing, yearning emotiveness, and unmistakable sincerity more than make up for it, with his evocative lyricism arguably his greatest asset.
With zero filler material across musicforthemorningafter’s fourteen tracks, it’s a daunting task to identify the handful of standout songs, but I’ll give it a go nevertheless. Album opener and lead single “Life on a Chain” makes great use of filtered vocal effects that give way to blasts of infectious, guitar-driven melodies, as Yorn examines finding redemption from the disenchantment of a stunted marriage, confiding that “Time alone is good, I spend my days in the city.”
The percussive, harmonica-blessed “Strange Condition” follows, as Yorn outlines the fragility of his tortured soul, as he pines for the elusive object of his affection. The uptempo stormer “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is)” is loosely inspired by Yorn finding the name Nancy scratched on the back of an old guitar he stumbled upon. More broadly, it can be interpreted as a grass-is-always-greener themed ode to appreciating the love that’s right in front of you and acknowledging that something (or someone) better may not exist after all.
A trio of more subdued compositions also represent notable highlights. Boasting what is arguably the album’s most memorable chorus (“You were lying wide awake in the garden / Trying to get over your stardom”), the stripped-down “Just Another” is a hazy daydream of a song built around Yorn’s proven penchant for conversational intimacy, as he relegates a past love to the status of “just another girl.” The introspective, gorgeously executed “On Your Side” is a stirring exploration of trying to heal the wounds of a fractured relationship, followed by the equally exquisite depiction of co-dependence, “Sleep Better.”
If forced to choose a personal favorite across the album, the shimmering, acoustic-guitar fueled pop of “Sense” rises to the top. The song showcases Yorn at his confessional best, as he laments the futile exercise of trying to change an obstinate lover who fails to reciprocate the energy and hope he has invested in her. Among the album’s many fine moments, “Sense” emerges as the finest, at least in my book.
Two weeks ago, Yorn released his seventh studio album Arranging Time, another stellar addition to his prolific discography and further proof that he has cultivated a rather productive career since his critically acclaimed debut arrived fifteen years ago. Whereas many recall 2001 as the year that The Strokes conquered hearts, minds, and ears with their admittedly wonderful debut Is This It, for me, musicforthemorningafter has proven a more enduring and indispensable staple of my record collection over time. Fifteen years later, with my wide-eyed bachelor days well behind me now, it still sounds as refreshing and life-affirming as ever.