Over the course of three releases between 1987 and 1990, Jane’s Addiction changed the face of alternative music. Perry Farrell’s distinctive – sometimes studio treated – vocals and Dave Navarro’s swirling guitar riffs had a distinctive style between them which was almost unique. Stephen Perkins’s ability to fuse rock, funk and jazz drum parts seamlessly only added to the mix of interesting sounds within the band’s repertoire. With so much going on, it was sometimes easy to overlook bassist Eric Avery’s contributions, but even those showcased a great amount of style, be they rock oriented (‘Mountain Song’) or more atmospherically inclined (‘Three Days’, ‘Then She Did…’).
The band’s third album ‘Ritual Do Lo Habitual’ (released in August 1990) is so earth shattering – and ground breaking in a rock sense – it’s become somewhat of a benchmark for the various works each band member has committed to tape since, either as part of Jane’s sporadic reunions, or as part of other projects. Naturally, if you approach 2011’s ‘The Great Escape Artist’ expecting lots of similar magic, chances are you’ll find yourselves feeling a tad underwhelmed. Face it, even Jane’s Addiction at full power aren’t likely to reach those levels of creativity ever again. It is fair to say, however, that ‘The Great Escape Artist’ is infinitely more interesting than 2003’s ‘Strays’. Although ‘Strays’ was a great rock record caked in guitar riffs and overdrive, Jane’s Addiction were always capable of far more than that album delivered. ‘The Great Escape Artist’ brings back a little more of their mellow experimentation, which alone makes it a bit more diverse than ‘Strays’, but it never quite takes such experiments far enough. On the plus side, this album in no way sounds like a reworking of anything the band have done before; on the negative, Navarro’s input is often too understated. In fact, ‘The Great Escape Artist’ sounds more like a work featuring members of Jane’s Addiction than a wholly “Jane’s Addiction” work…if that makes sense.
‘Underground’ sets things off with a big fuzzy riff delivered with a distinctly mid pace. Farrell’s vocals are very filtered (as is often the case) and the whole vibe is confident, as you’d expect. In terms of riffing, it’s not as choppy as ‘Stop!’ or ‘Ain’t No Right’, or as blatently “rock out” as most of the tunes from ‘Strays’, but even so, still maintains a presence. Although it has an unshakeable sound, it isn’t especially striking on first listen. A few plays later and some of the less obvious textures begin to present themselves. Navarro is on hand with a distinctive solo with a few harsher notes which add just enough flair. Not totally classic, but a solid opening gambit, during which the riff is all…and in some ways, that’s all there needs to be – it’s best not to peak too soon. However, while that riff is one of the album’s biggest, long-term fans ought not to expect too much here. Regarding most of his playing during these sessions, Navarro had said that his “approach became more melodic and simplistic…”, while also adding the disclaimer he was “not doing tons and tons of overdriven rhythm guitar tracks, and not a hell of lot of soloing that doesn’t add to the melodic nature of a track”. As the album progresses, this becomes extremely evident. With regard to presence, from here on – and without his trademark overdrive – Navarro certainly takes very much a back seat on most of these recordings.
‘End To The Lies’ follows with a similar stompiness, with the intensity taken up just a notch. Navarro’s reverbed rhythm guitar parts echo some of his (quieter) work with his Panic Channel project, while his occasional lead lines are among the album’s more prominent. As with ‘Underground’, Farrell’s voice adopts a lower key than most of his performances with Jane’s back in the day; the less distinctive, slightly deeper registers present (during the refrain, particularly) present a vocal sound which, surprisingly, harks back to his pre-Jane’s days with goth/alt-rock band Psi Com. A rumbling bass riff backed with simple drumming (with hi-hat flourishes) kicks off ‘Curiosity Kills’. Its basis could be any number of post-millennial alternative rock numbers, and while the sound isn’t typically Jane’s Addiction-esque, that doesn’t necessarily make it weak. Farrell’s vocals are subjected to a truckload of studio trickery, but no amount of trickery grabs the attention like a bassline which sounds like a truck! Things lighten up for the chorus where a piano accompaniment provides a nice touch. It’s got more of an air of early-mid 80s U2 than Jane’s (‘New Years Day’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ spring instantly to mind). Although it’s at the safe end of alt-rock – possibly inspired by Farrell’s own Satellite Party project – its end sound manages to be incredibly pleasing, despite the lack of obvious lead guitar chops. The band is lucky here that their musical arrangement carries some gravitas, since the chorus sounds somewhat rushed… Dave Navarro eventually gets to step up his game as the number pulls to a close, offering a couple of reasonable guitar leads, but compared some of his past works, he barely warms up.
More mid-paced riffs cut through the centre of ‘Irresistible Force’, a great tuneful rocker. Navarro’s lead guitar, once again, seems more rooted in rhythms and general weightiness as opposed to the edgy lead style we know he’s capable; instead the bulk of the tune is either carried through Farrell’s lead voice or swirly keyboards (some very old fashioned mellotrons, possibly). In some ways, the commercial easiness of this number made it the perfect choice for a single, but in others, it’s not exactly classic, “maximum thrills” style Jane’s Addiction.
In pre-release interviews, the band stated ‘The Great Escape Artist’ featured a lot of material which ventured into uncharted musical territory for Jane’s Addiction. Listeners may have taken that to mean the band had pushed new boundaries (like Farrell’s drum and bass experiments on his 2001 solo ‘Song Yet To Be Sung’, for example), but here, the new territory is in the adult, radio-friendly rock vein. As with parts of ‘Curiosity Kills’, ‘I’ll Hit You Back’ and ‘Twisted Tales’ both drive the band in a more commercial direction. It may not be edgy, but even in such relatively easy-going pop/rock vein, Jane’s still sound superb. ‘I’ll Hit You Back’ (finally, a song named after Farrell’s music publishers!) is, perhaps, the accessible track the band has ever recorded. Navarro’s rhythm guitars jangle and very much drive the tune, while Perkins’s drum lines have a breezy, almost pre-programmed quality. With regard to the song itself, it’s a great, sunny piece – the closest ‘Escape Artist’ gets to being sing-along. In truth, the alt-rock sound here – coupled with the album’s most obvious chorus – would make it a better single than ‘Irresistible Force’; it’s literally screaming for radio play. ‘Twisted Tales’ takes the commercialism and moves away from the “pop” chorus (remember, pop is not a swear word); here, a world of swirly keyboards and programmed bass awaits the listener. There’s a distinct goth-pop edge underneath Farrell’s treated vocal, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of this track is Navarro’s guitar sound. It takes its usual backseat throughout, but when it decides to raise its head into Farrell’s world of slightly new wavish pomposity, it takes on a retro twang that’s unlike anything Navarro has played on record before.
‘Ultimate Reason’ (the first of three tracks to feature a Duff McKagan co-writing credit) brings back some more obvious rock stylings by way a slightly chuggy guitar riff. Unlike ‘Underground’ though, the band delivers more here than just riffs, as an Eastern musical motif helps give things the necessary lift. Those Eastern elements are more accessible and less pronounced than the Morrocan style waltz which powered ‘Of Course’ (from ‘Ritual De Lo Habitual’); even more importantly, this is also far, far more tuneful. In terms of musical arrangement this isn’t as striking as it could have perhaps been, but Jane’s Addiction put their own stamp on it well enough. It’s certainly well arranged enough to pull fans in for repeated listens. ‘Splash a Little Water On It’ combines a little psychedelic dreaminess with some already familiar sounding, mid-paced grooves. Navarro’s clean guitar work rings out above an Eric Avery style bassline and the general familiarity of the sound suits Farrell’s vocal immensely. The keyboard washes echo the mellotron sound once again and although the band sound great, there’s a feeling they could have used a little more imagination in the arrangement depot. It’s pleasant enough, for sure, but pales significantly compared to the band’s previous atmospheric works. Still, it’s much better than ‘Broken People’, which brings a mid-paced, mid-power riff, which then ambles for four minutes, never really going anywhere. Farrell’s vocal is distinctly Farrell, but beyond that, this could be the work of any number of faceless bands out there. If ‘The Great Escape Artist’ has a weak link among it’s (often) less instant tunes, this would most definitely be it.
The album finishes with ‘Words Right Out of My Mouth’, possibly the album’s only real no-nonsense rocker. Another co-write with Duff McKagan, this track has a slight trashiness, albeit in a good way. There’s a huge nod to Velvet Revolver in its rhythms and outright paunchiness. The rockier edge puts this number in line with most of the grooves which filled the band’s ‘Strays’ disc eight years previously, but it’s better than a good few of those. Stephen Perkins drives most of the track with a great rock drum line (although it’s sorely lacking any of his distinctive funky fills), while Navarro tips the hat to some of his previous overdriven guitar riffs. In all, it’s not the best number on this album by any means, but the stormy performances help finish the album on an upbeat note.
As an album which isn’t big on choruses, ‘The Great Escape Artist’ requires a few spins in order to properly get to grips with even its best material. Most of its style isn’t always very representative of what this band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders, and it’s relative lack of obvious edginess – and Navarro’s understated contributions throughout – makes it somewhat of a slow-burner. It’s certainly not ‘Ritual de lo Habitual’ or ‘Nothing’s Shocking’, but then it was never likely to be. Whereas in the 80s, Jane’s either liked to rock with hard choppy riffs or pull their audiences through mellow psychedelic pastures, here, their music never reaches for either extreme. Most of the time, it occupies an alternative rock space somewhere betwixt, which in many ways, it has more in common with Farrell’s poppy Satellite Party. It may be relatively safe – and it’s certainly very commercial in places – but those willing to accept the music on its own terms will certainly enjoy what’s on offer.
When such a cult band puts out new material after a lengthy hiatus, there’s always a worry they just won’t cut it anymore. ‘The Great Escape Artist’ mightn’t please everyone with its lack of distinction between the rock and atmospheric elements, but since it actually has an atmospheric vibe, even the weakest parts of the album could be better than anything Perry Farrell or Dave Navarro have put their names to since the mid-90s, given the right mood and setting. That alone is enough to make this a welcome release – and one with more longevity than ‘Strays’ ever offered.