"The Great Escape Artist," the first studio album from Jane's Addiction in eight years, is nothing less than a reanimation of the long-slumbering conception that hard rock can be at once intellectually stimulating and damn sexy, blatantly "arty" and physically invigorating.
It took 20 years to get here. Back in 1991, Jane's Addiction had the good sense to call it a day just as the band was hitting its commercial peak. By refusing to stick around as internal fissures began to weaken the strength of its groundbreaking blend of progressive music, alternative and hard rock, Jane's -- Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, Stephen Perkins and Eric Avery -- preserved itself in its young, good-looking and artistically vibrant corpus.
When the band reformed and released the album "Strays" eight years back, the world seemed to be ill-prepared for such an event. The record was a bombastic slab of glitter and glam, featuring killer song after killer song of hippie-fied heavy metal and psychedelic alt-rock. No one bought it, though -- or at least, not in the numbers that might be expected of the band that released the strong selling classics "Nothing's Shocking" and "Ritual De Lo Habitual."
Critics either ignored the album or took cheap shots at it, the long and short of it all being the unspoken suggestion that Jane's Addiction's time had passed and its creative well run dry. That such a suggestion was total nonsense didn't stop it from making the rounds.
Let's hope these folks don't make the same mistake with "The Great Escape Artist," Jane's Addiction's fourth full-length studio album and, for my money, its most adventurous.
The album is produced by Dave Sitek of avant-alt-rock outfit TV On the Radio, but, as has always been the case, Jane's is driven by the vocal acrobatics and spiritual/sexual concerns of frontman Farrell, the creator of the Lollapalooza Festival, and the Jim Morrison of his own generation.
At 52, Farrell seems to have conquered his drink and drug demons, and he is in fighting shape throughout this new record, layering his vocals in the trippy fashion that made him the most convincing lead vocalist to emerge from the alternative 1980s. Part shaman, part class clown, part provocateur and part poet, Farrell works his strange magic from the opening knockout combo of "Underground" and first single "End to the Lies," through to the final moments of the surprisingly pop-tastic album-closer "Words Right Out of My Mouth." He has never sounded better, more self-assured and more musically on-point.
Of course, Farrell isn't the whole Jane's show. Equally important are tribal-thunder merchant Perkins and guitarist supreme Navarro, both of whom prove themselves to be all but peerless among their generation of heavy rock instrumentalists. Navarro makes "Great Escape Artist" his personal masterpiece, layering thickly textured guitar figures throughout the album and displaying the full breadth of his color palette and influences -- from Hendrix to heavy metal, Joy Division to Led Zeppelin and back.
A significant portion of the album's genius boils down to the manner in which Navarro composed and assembled imaginative supporting guitar figures, emphasizing melodic enhancement over displays of chops -- although he's still got plenty of those, as even a cursory listen to his full-frontal assault during "End to the Lies" will attest.
Producer Sitek's influence is apparent during the album's strongest moments, which invariably end up being the just plain weirdest of the bunch -- the spoken-sung tone poem "Splash a Little Water on It," the frankly unsettling, brimming-with-violence "I'll Hit You Back," and the reaching-for-the-heavens ascending melody that buoys "Irresistible Force," all of which bring some gauzy psychedelia to bear on the muscular Jane's physique. Sitek didn't change the band, but rather, enhanced aspects of its sound that have always been there, as far back as epics like "Mountain Song" and "Three Days." Clearly, the musical marriage was a beneficent one.
The combined effect of all of these separate elements is a throughly modern heavy album that dares to embrace art-rock conceits with ample conviction. Jane's Addiction is back in a big way. "The Great Escape Artist" is one of the most compelling rock releases of the year.
The Great Escape Artist
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)