Jane’s Addiction has a new album out! Had you heard? I’m guessing you hadn’t.
It wasn’t all that long ago that a new Jane’s Addiction album would have been a big, big deal, like cover-of-every-magazine, appearances-on-every-talk-show big. But in 2011, 21 years after their last decent product (1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual) the world greeted this week’s release of The Great Escape Artist with a universal halfhearted shrug.
It didn’t have to be this way. Jane’s Addiction was a great band — more than that, an important band. All through the ’90s, the last emotion I’d ever expect them to inspire was indifference. Anybody who was hip to Jane’s Addiction when they were Jane’s Addiction was into them like a religious cult — and I held on as a devoted disciple for as long as I could.
To begin with, they had probably the best band name anyone’s ever thought of (with the possible exception of Kathleen Turner Overdrive). Their first two studio albums — 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking and 1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual — synthesized rock, metal, and poetry and created a totally new, almost alien sound when they were released. They sounded like Art and Religion and Sex all rolled into one awesome thing that sounded best LOUD.
Frontman Perry Farrell has always been the face of Jane’s (while guitarist Dave Navarro, who has not worn a shirt in public in about 15 years, serves as the body), thanks to his piercing, nasal singing style, coupled with genuinely interesting lyrics. A few samples:
T.V.’s got those images, T.V.’s got them all, it’s not shocking;
Showed me everybody naked and disfigured, nothing’s shocking
Wish I was ocean size
They cannot move you and no one tries
No one pulls you up from your hole
Like a tooth aching a jawbone
One must eat the other who runs free before him,
Put them right into his mouth
While fantasizing the beauty of his movements.
A sensation not unlike slapping yourself in the face…
I’m not saying this stuff is all Beaudelaire, but in the context of the late ’80s, the era of “Cherry Pie” and “You Give Love A Bad Name,” it stood out for at least making you think. This band made you (or at least, made me) feel like I could rock out and be intelligent at the same time.
They burned bright, but they burned out fast, and broke up in 1991, almost immediately after becoming a national act with its college-radio/latenight MTV hit “Been Caught Stealing,” because of irreconcilable personal differences between Farrell and bassist Eric Avery.
For a long time, Avery resisted the band’s entreaties to reunite, so Jane’s Addiction soldiered on through three reunions without him: the 1997 “Relapse” tour, with Flea on bass, and the 2001 “Jubilee” tour and the 2003 “Strays” tour, both with session bass players covering for Avery. It took the band until 2003 to release a follow-up to Ritual de lo Habitual, and with no songwriting contribution from Eric Avery, Strays fell completely flat, and ultimately served the same purpose as a new Rolling Stones album — it provided the band with an excuse to hit the road and play their classics.
You don’t have to listen to a lot of those classics to realize why Jane’s Addiction hasn’t been able to do anything cool since it lost its bass player. In fact, you don’t have to listen to them at all, if you’re like me and waged a sustained campaign in the early-to-mid ’90s to permanently imprint them on your cortex through sheer repetition.
Think about how the following songs start: “Summertime Rolls.” “Mountain Song.” “Three Days.” “Up The Beach.” “Ted, Just Admit It.” “Been Caught Stealing.” These are all great, great songs, some of the best rock of the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Nirvana and Nevermind get a lot of credit for slaying the demon of ’80s lite-metal, but Jane’s Addiction did quite a bit of damage in its short career.) And all of them begin the same way, with Avery’s bass setting the tone and the rest of the band falling in behind him.
None of those parts are Beethoven, obviously; Avery isn’t blowing any minds with them, and they don’t require any particular virtuosity to play. But they were the obvious genesis of the songs, they had a vibe and a drive that inspired Farrell, guitarist Dave Navarro, and drummer Stephen Perkins, touched them somewhere that brought out each of their unique contributions that ended up being a whole called “Jane’s Addiction.” Put another way: Farrell, Navarro, and Perkins are a pretty flashy sportscar, but Avery was the key in the ignition. Without the key, that car’s not going anywhere.
Supporting evidence of this theory can be found in Navarro’s short tenure with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the mid-’90s. When guitar prodigy John Frusciante became the second Chili Peppers guitarist to leave the band behind a heroin problem (a problem that, unlike his predecessor Hillel Slovak, he survived), the Chili Peppers apparently asked themselves if they knew any other junkie guitarists, and called Navarro. The record they made, 1995’s One Hot Minute, had none of the funk the Chili Peppers were (at that time) famous for; it was almost all super-simple heavy rock tunes. Why? Because Frusciante’s guitar parts (and Slovak’s before him) had been the key in the Chili Peppers’ ignition, as you can plainly hear all over the band’s best album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Without any key in their ignition, the Chili Peppers with Navarro just reverted to what came easiest. (The album is so short on material that it includes “Pea,” a song that features Flea, solo, singing incredibly stupid lyrics and accompanying himself on unamplified bass.)
To some extent, anything with Perry Farrell’s voice on it is going to sound like Jane’s Addiction, because his voice (and, as importantly, the way he records it) is as distinctive an instrument as Coltrane’s sax: the moment you hear it, there’s no question who it is.
But when the “reunited” Jane’s put out its first record in 13 years, nobody noticed, because it didn’t sound like Jane’s Addiction. Quick story: when the TV show Entourage premiered on HBO, I liked the show right away and watched all of its first two seasons. (I soon grew to hate the show, but I will resist that 2,500-word digression.) Even when I liked it, though, I muted the TV during the theme song, which sounded to me like the worst kind of Pro Tools-assembled, super-compressed, obviously edited, generic “rock.” It was years later, after I stopped watching the show, that I learned that that theme song was called “Superhero,” and it was written and performed by Jane’s Addiction.
I got momentarily excited when Eric Avery finally rejoined the band and they started touring in 2008 and 2009, but I didn’t have an opportunity to go see them play. Avery quit again in 2010, after trying to rally the band into creating some new material; they managed only new studio versions of their circa-’87 tunes “Whores” and “Chip Away.” Avery apparently decided his good-faith effort to resurrect Jane’s Addiction was futile when, on the day of the band’s performance at Lollapalooza 2009 — a symbolic gig, as the band had broken up immediately following the inaugural Lollapalooza tour in 1991 — Farrell released a video for a song he’d recorded as a solo artist, “I Like ‘Em Big.”
Words fail to express how awful and creatively bankrupt this video is, which makes it all the sadder that it’s been taken off YouTube and, apparently, the entire Internet. Perhaps Perry grew a creative conscience? Suffice to say, the creative death of Perry Farrell is the other reason Jane’s Addiction hasn’t done anything cool in 20 years.
After Avery’s second departure, former Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan was brought out of cold storage for six months of sessions and shows, and then quit; then Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio was recruited to assist in the recording, and this week the result, The Great Escape Artist, was finally released. My initial reaction to this news was total indifference, but then I decided to give it a listen, so here are the real-time reactions of a hardcore classic Jane’s fan to their new record, one song at a time:
“Underground” A little bit of (surely synthesized) quivering strings starts things off promisingly, as Perry sings a couple of lines and then the band kicks in. It sounds like Jane’s Addiction, although the amount of distinctly computer-generated sound effects is already a little distressing — it seems meant to distract me from the fact that this song is built around a two-note riff, but it has the opposite effect. Navarro’s solo comes exactly when it feels like it should, and sounds exactly like you’d expect it to sound, which is not really a plus for a band that built its name on zigging when you thought they’d zag.
“End To The Lies” Where his non-rhyming lyrics used to conjure interesting ideas, now he just seems to be using them to present his side of his beef with Avery, kind of like John Lennon’s petty and musically pathetic song-attacks on Paul McCartney in the ’70s.
“Curiosity Kills” We’re only on the second song and everything already feels very formulaic: the quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic, Farrell’s multitracked vocals. This song has a totally obvious G-C-D chord progression and no real riff to speak of (because the riffs always came from Avery). The session bassist they brought in plays steady 16ths, exactly on the chord changes — a bass line Eric Avery wouldn’t be caught dead signing off on.
“Irresistible Force” This sounds like the Jane’s version of a Red Hot Chili Peppers ballad. Perry even states “God is not dead,” refuting the lyrical thrust of “Had A Dad,” which I thought of as filler on Nothing’s Shocking but is head and shoulders better than anything on this record.
“I’ll Hit You Back” Perry Farrell’s publishing company is called I’ll Hit You Back Music, so did he write this song after sitting on the title concept for the last 20+ years? Or has he been sitting on a written song that had yet to find a Jane’s album weak enough to get itself onto?
“Twisted Tales” This song makes almost no impression on me, other than to confuse me. What is it for? You can’t rock out to it, it’s not relaxing, you wouldn’t want it on in the bedroom… what is it for?
“Ultimate Reason” This one starts with a swell of some kind of synthey bit of atmosphere, just like the previous track did. It feels like Farrell is self-consciously trying to evoke the epic nature of classic Jane’s, like “Three Days,” but where old Jane’s felt epic in the true sense of the word — it took you on a journey — this is just a bunch of parts stuck together.
“Splash A Little Water On It” seems to be about washing one’s manhood in the sink after a late night out. Lyrically, not quite “Ted, Just Admit It…” territory here. Is this the first Navarro solo on this thing in since the first or second track, or are his solos just super forgettable? Maybe it was cold enough in the studio that he had to put on a shirt, and that sapped some of his powers. The solo goes nowhere, kind of peters out into a synth break that feels like a placeholder for a cooler part that never got added.
“Broken People” seems to be trying to live in “Jane Says”/”Classic Girl” territory, but it sounds more like the Goo Goo Dolls.
“Words Right Out Of My Mouth” Might be a decent — No, “decent” is too strong. How about “serviceable”? — rocker if it didn’t have these insipid lyrics about birds swooping down and taking his words.
I listened to this album twice, and I do not plan on doing it a third time. Tellingly, it’s being sold with a second disc’s worth of material: live versions of Jane’s classic songs, played by the current version of the band. Because even Perry Farrell knows that this record is terrible, so he hopes to leave you with the memory of the band in better times. Unfortunately, that was the only memory I had of the band until this crappy record came out.