Since time immemorial, Hawaii has stood as a national emblem and epicenter for all manner of spiritual awakenings, elemental seekings, oceanic revelations, and volcanic ancestries that call as loudly to philosophical outsiders as they have done for that majestic archipelago’s native and rightful inhabitants for untold centuries. Paul Theroux said, “Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace.” Mark Twain dedicated a whole book of his witticisms to the place. Elvis gave it the best shows and the last years of his immense life and heart. There is an old Hawaiian saying that suggests, “an expert is recognized by the altar he builds.” The audio altar that Pete Yorn has fashioned on Hawaii, his tenth studio album, bears this rapier-like truism out fully as it is a record constructed on his characteristic curlicue gravity and dedicated to laying leis across the kind of cobalt connections between we humans-pretending-to-be-islands only he would have the voyager vim and the Pele poetry to perceive and praise.
If you are a novice Yornitiate and Hawaii is the first war mount to bear you into the copper and satin fray of his aural aikido, the primary thing to understand going in is that Pete Yorn is a transfiguring force. His are not records so much as they are survival kits rendered in soundwave. Do not waste time looking for a reference point for his highly specialized classification of narrative medicine because there is none, nor interim legends to ponce you gently up his succussive stairs. As a songwriter, he is the animal antimony in human form that would be stood before you if Jimmy Webb had been shaggy and shy. If you did not happen to stray into his net before the internet, be ready for his songs to sneak up on you and put Caps Lock on all the things you never said, in candied hues, and for this to feel like an unshelling – like bombs going backwards.
Dashing and decadently damaged enough to have gone to Bennington in the ‘80s, Pete Yorn’s records are like the novels of Ouida – something you really need an older, smarter, more dusty-cool academic-authoritarian in your life to properly show you in order to safeguard against missing all the hidden best parts that ray out into half-invisible connections with other hidden best parts. You will come to learn the singular vernacular in his voodoo, the way his songs have the potency of epistolary forms – like old love letters found and read in a garden where only mandrake, nightshade, and wolf peaches ever grow. Those who have had their harmonic heart lights turned on by Yorn since Musicforthemorningafter can all attest to what his entry to the murderer’s row that was the early aughts music scene felt and looked like back then – a pony and trap defiantly and nonchalantly driven into the Viceroy’s ballroom.
Hawaii houses an omniana of the kind of saltwater orbital facilities only a satellite sonneteer like Pete Yorn could radio. Beautifully broken barnacles, both bodily and brain borne, strew its blue beaches in all directions. The Humuhumunukunukuapuaa’s Fish Edition even comes in ocean and algae splattered colors, and there are versions in deep ultramarine and found-treasure gold fit for gods as well.
This gilding of the grooves is fitting as deities of all stamps often make guest appearances on Pete Yorn albums, and they usually appear as feminine intermutations of modern-day orants – though seemingly the kind who only inspire others to pray – as does the first one to wash in on Hawaii in lead track “Elizabeth Taylor” (QRO review). Celluloid’s most dramatic Diamond Dame becomes a bit of a pejorative in this incarnation, atop a Kim Deal-worthy bass line and alongside the equally haunted names of Motor (Avenue) and National (Boulevard). Longtime members of Mr. Yorn’s devoted Bromley Contingent know that his songs always feel like Amblin movies, and this is one that will leave its 35MM memories of muslin, muscle cars, and montage all over your every Monday. Listen to this one in the car and you are sure to think you have just passed Liz herself on the street a time or two, “standing on the corner” in a secondhand negligee with some seriously standalone merits – much like her song here.
From there Hawaii dives straight into “Never Go”, an automatic-classic example of what some never-going nixie with a penchant for nicknames has been known to refer to over the years as a “Pete Yorn marquee madrigal,” a sawtooth violet of a song swerving you face-first into the deep-end queries that swell in the air within the negative utopias of any long-legged relationship: “Is it you or I, making us desensitized/Is it you or I, what you most dislike.” This second track likewise solidifies a symbolic and recurrent theme that seems to run through the entire record – one of proximity, both temporal and physical.
Loads of lyrics, ideas, and tropes treading water on Hawaii deal with people and presences being far away, retreating, coming too close, not coming close enough, staying too long, or leaving too soon. “‘Til The End“ marks this in title and in its pure Wes Anderson-meets-White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends” sentiment and aesthetic. The melody of this one is sweet and fun enough to owe modest dues to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, the highest compliment any upbeat song could ever strive for.
The distance motif marches on in the piano-trained butterflies of “Further,” “Fred & Wilma”s examination of the ragtag intervals in love or the sometimes-verminous/other times harmless-but-devoid things that stand in for it, and the heaven of hypnotism that is closing track “Stay Away”, which serves as the inverted corollary to “Never Go” in title and tone. None of these separation songs make gauzy statements even as they all live in diaphanous lagoons; none take the easy way out when addressing the unseen coral reefs beneath the human lives they are fish-hooking – reefs that, like every true life-giver, simultaneously sustain vitality and draw stinging blood. All will make a tear-impluvium of your desk, shirt, or steering wheel if you listen carefully and openly.
There are people who try to euthanize dog-mercury memories in a “spend the balance” self-lie bid to make difficult times seem easier to the mind. There are others who know no such delusion-DeLorean exists and thus the only answer to real pain is even more real focus, alongside a permanent and solemn salute to the first and worst rip. “Blood” is a standout almost-love song that does this exceptionally well, and does it to a tripping beat of drums like upward-bound rain droplets, amid downward-smiling ‘80s cloud-synths, and whilst rife with pensive lyrical mini-poems like, “Beneath the midnight where we almost fell in love,” and, “She was taller than most other girls.”
Cubs and colts new to the Pete pastures should give themselves the fun homework experiment of reading the lyrics before listening to this or any of his albums. He will sing virtually nothing in the syllabic emphasis patterns that you are likely to expect from those plainspoken words on the page – like the hiccupping extra syllables he gives the word “disappear” here in “Blood” – instead wrapping worker-words in wickerwork and then, like a gun-dog, quietly pointing straight at timbre trinkets in the simple sounds you just did not see before.
This is partly because Pete Yorn is a born bard with an Oulipian command of language and it is also that he is a courageous possibilitarian – in life, in vocabulary, and in storytelling. He is admirably unafraid to imagine a word differently than how it was born and freely turns words the way an elegant rock ballerino would turn out his feet. In his song-plotlines he is forever deliberately stepping in the middle of his own answer and making sure to find himself beneath the glass of his own joke. The third and most formidable reason for this unique transference trick of his is almost certainly because of where he was born.
Hawaiians call themselves keiki o ka ‘aina, the “children of the land,” in recognition of the cultural covenants only the ground that grew you can engender in your soul. Though he is now many years a SoCal Sufi, Pete Yorn’s work is always keeping a prism-sighted promise to his birthplace and spirit home, indomitable New Jersey. His consistently unexpected phrasings and understated cannon booms of meaning are indicative of a high musical intelligence outsmarting cliché at every turn of vocal delivery. That it is all accomplished with that shrewd, editorially limber lip-curl that only grows naturally in the proverbial Grub Street of the Garden State is both undeniable and culturally delectable in equal measure.
“Ransom” starts out as Hawaii’s streetlight sleeper of a piano ballad that then swiftly and seamlessly transmogrifies into the most hungering piece of passion-ultrasonography maybe ever in Yorn’s canon, but certainly since “Long Way Down”. Pete Yorn can effortlessly change sonic gears and wed narrative elements like that without breaking a breath, and carry on through heart-digesting lines like “If anyone would’ve warned me about you/I might have gone the other way, but not too far away,” as though he has just nonchalantly pulled a mermaid from his duffel bag and expects you to take no notice of it. “Ransom” holds you for it to a degree that, even upon repeated listens, you will find no way out of its skyward strings and looping outro confessional: “I can’t love you this way/I can’t love you from this place.” As ear-Epicureanism goes, this song would be the infamous eagle-feather fan of Countess Ellen Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence – it is the precious totem you feel guilty-but-not for giving so much of your attention.
Following the ribcage-ransack of “Ransom” with the saudade-soaked “Also, Roses“ allows Hawaii to channel a bit of Will Rogers’ best line about the Polynesian skerries: “Hawaii is the only place I know where they lay flowers on you while you are alive.” The butane-blue blossoms Yorn brings here pull you under with their trickly lyrical tide pools, such as, “Ever since I killed nostalgia / Finally I can live without ya,” and “Cut my leg while trying to smell the roses / But not like before” – patches of words that have hot and cold spots to find with your foot.
“Miss Alien” is a song so dreamy as to blur the timeline of your day, and it is the most recent cochlear exemplar of Pete Yorn being that most limited edition caliber of man that can speak what he finds beyond understanding in women without diminishing them into some distorted commotion within his own art. The divinatory arts and gladiatorial games of lesser stags make no appearance anywhere across his archive, even where he might have to lock horns with an archenemy or two. Men that can say, much less convincingly sing, the size of what they realize they do not know are quite like structural reds and absorptive blues – the rarest naturally occurring colors in all of Mother Nature.
As an entity unto itself, Hawaii is a highly cinematic Pete Yorn précis abloom with the same ultramolecular cool of glimpsing The Plimsouls in the background of Valley Girl, or the megadoses and re-transmissions of nostalgia associated with The March Violets bending the mood in those most crucial scenes of Some Kind of Wonderful, all shot through with strands of Stranger Things synths on its scintillating seafloor. Hawaii is also space-defining in the same manner as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, it pays homage to the curtailments and accidentalia that make for any well-observed human life, and it functions a bit like an archive of Yorn’s half-forgotten dreams – the kind we all gingerly avoid until they become so hot as to be ionized and begin to sear into our spirits.
According to Hawaiian novelist and snorkelographer extraordinaire, Robert Wintner, Hawaii the place “is still the single most frequent fantasy destination, not because of political stability or conveniences, but because Hawaii seduces the imagination.” Hawaii the album does the same, and all within a pelagic place Pete Yorn has conjured where ivory selkies and lapsed Kennedys could freely commune and benefit from one another’s company. Hawaii arrives differently to your ears each time it opens its hibiscus-bright harmonies to you and, much like that official flower of Hawaii the state, they open and close according to the weather – sometimes a saltlick lay, others a little nickel of light – all depending on how the day splays and whether yours is the kind of volition built for volleying over the emotional echophenoma this record will produce at every encounter.
Sail out confidently knowing ahead of time that all of Hawaii’s songs are stolen bases, the softer ones strop-sweetening the edge on the razor of what will come when Yorn gets loud again; the contemplative cutters flashing in the corner of your eye just long enough for you to see whose name is inscribed on the blade. With album number ten, as per usual, Pete Yorn will take you where you have never yet been, but he will do that while he is lovingly dropping you off at every place you were ever born. This time, that place will be where Wakea is worshipped and “sweet tongues buy horses on credit.” This time, that place will be Hawaii.
-photo: Beth Yorn