I’ll say that again, for dramatic effect. Damnit.
I want to get this out of the way, so you can skip the rest of this post or read intently, accordingly: I like this record. So there’s that.
Pete Yorn has always been, for better or worse, about three steps behind Ryan Adams on the songwriter career evolution path and frankly, releasing Break Up, an album of duets with a gorgeous Hollywood starlet (Scarlett Johansson), who fancies herself a vocalist isn’t going to set him off that path. Hell, Adams probably recorded an album very similar to this with any number of red carpet bombshells but just didn’t release it. Who knows, who cares?
Point is, Yorn and Johansson aren’t breaking any new ground here by collaborating on a set of infectious, if seemingly half-baked, head-bobbers (M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel did that to great effect last year). So, while Break Up isn’t any sort of singular creative achievement, it is an incredibly enjoyable collection of throwaway pop tunes with just enough braun and emotional resonance that, upon repeated listenings, reveal themselves to be anything but disposable.
This surprising depth is especially evident in “The Relator,” the first single from Break Up. Yorn and Johansson – whose voice has matured a bit since the release of Anywhere I Lay My Head – trade verses over a jittery guitar line bemoaning the death of a relationship. (Get it? The root word of “relationship” is “relate!” When people stop “relating” to one another, their “relationship” suffers!) Is it a groundbreaking revelation? No. But it’s clever enough and deftly performed and, with Yorn and Johansson behind it, the whole thing works. In the end, for what this record is, there’s not a lot more you can ask for.
Now, back to “damnit.” I understand that considering Scarlett Johansson’s music career a worthwhile endeavor isn’t an especially popular opinion and I can understand why it wouldn’t be. But take the following into consideration: 1) Her debut album, a collection of Tom Waits covers (and one original composition that had no business sharing space with Waits’ work) was expertly produced by Dave Sitek, and any vocal shortcomings were buried in the arrangements. 2) Johansson is on hand for Break Up as vocalist only, acting as narrative counterpart to Yorn. She’s hardly out of her depth, she has improved as a vocalist, and she’s not overreaching. Loretta Lynn she ain’t, but Johansson seems to know her limitations and has surrounded herself, thus far, with collaborators who can know how to get the best out of her. There’s something to be said for that.
Break Up is not an “essential” album; it is probably not going to have you reeling in awe, but it is a great reminder that dismissing an album offhand can be a mistake. Such is the beauty of music. There’s great, there’s awful and then, somewhere in between, there are these pleasant surprises that keep us coming back.