Jane's Addiction is one of the most revered bands to come out of the alternative-rock movement, and both singer Perry Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro have proven annoyingly durable as celebrities, facts which make it easy to forget that the group has only released three studio albums in 24 years. And 2003's Strays, like their latest, The Great Escape Artist, is of questionable canonicity to fans of the classic lineup; the Jane's Addiction that anyone is likely to really care about is responsible for exactly 20 songs released over two years. That's not unheard of, but usually the only way to obtain such a skewed ratio of available material to enduring cache is by dying young or going off the grid, which amounts to the same thing, almost never by enjoying a lengthy public retirement punctuated by stabs at productivity.
The Great Escape Artist opens with Farrell professing to have replanted his feet "back in the underground," a statement which doesn't quite square with the actual contents—or his own description—of the album. Farrell told Rolling Stone that he considered the album's sound apiece with that of current rock acts like Muse and Radiohead, a statement which mostly causes me to wonder if he's listened to anything Radiohead's done since OK Computer. Details notwithstanding, The Great Escape Artist does sound like wholly contemporary arena rock, with little of the musical or lyrical transgressiveness that made the first incarnation of the band such a beacon for outsiders. On "Irresistible Force," Navarro and company build to U2 levels of grandeur while Farrell intones, "The irresistible force/Met the immovable object/Bang bang bang bang bang," with little irony. But that's easily the worst song on the album.
The majority of The Great Escape Artist is more likely to be uninvolving than outright bad, its songs pretty easy to sort out into the passable and the entirely skippable based on whether or not Navarro came up with anything cool to do with his guitar. On "Underground," "I'll Hit You Back," and "Words Right Out of My Mouth," he lives up to his rock-god-like reputation, but elsewhere he's more than happy to crib from the Edge or Jonny Greenwood circa The Bends. It's a shame because the basic appeal of this sound is still easy to discern. In places it's anachronistically heavy: Jane's Addiction is still a band decisively influenced by the Cure and Led Zeppelin, and, improbably enough, contemporary guitar rock owes quite a lot more to the former than the latter at this juncture. The heaviness and bluesiness that a genuinely reinvigorated Jane's Addiction could re-inject into the somewhat tired climate of '80s-obsessed indie rock would be considerable, but on The Great Escape Artist the band seems wary of the extremes of its own sounds. Nothing is as furious as "Stop!," as pretty as "Classic Girl," as massive as "Mountain Song," or as epic as "Three Days." And there's certainly nothing with the grim, subversive humor of "Ted, Just Admit It..." It'd be forgivable—and sort of expected—if Jane's Addiction had merely failed to top their peak material, but the overwhelming impression given by The Great Escape Artist is that they never actually tried.