Michael Penn's 'Less Tidy' Sound

Michael Penn doesn't really want to talk about it -- where he's been, why he's waited, what happened.

He'd rather just get down to discussing the lush, Beatlesy pop songs on his third effort, Resigned, his first album of new material since 1992's Free For All. Still, there was no getting around it.

"It's not like I haven't been working," Penn said, a touch of annoyance creeping into his voice. "It was just a fairly typical label situation that's far too boring to go into in any detail," he said. What Penn is talking about is getting caught between executive regimes at his old label, RCA, which led to a limbo of the kind "nobody tells you about when you get into this stuff at a young age."

So, Penn sat idle as he waited to extricate himself, or be extricated, from his RCA contract. Luckily for him, when he did finally pop out the other side of the major label thresher, albeit five years later, Pearl Jam and Matthew Sweet producer Brendan O'Brien was there waiting for him.

The results of their collaboration -- O'Brien produced Resigned, in addition to playing bass -- was released in June and mostly ignored. Surprising since the album is an 11-song collection of dark melodic pop in the same vein as Penn's winning 1989 debut, No Myth, including a number of songs brushed with a not-so-subtle double-meaning, love lost and career loss. It's sometimes hard to tell if Penn is pining for a lover or for years of his life in songs such as the orchestral "Out of My Hands," in which he sings, "so go and check/there's nothing up my sleeve/all the while it's getting harder for you to believe."

Penn, brother of actor Sean Penn, is grateful to O'Brien, not just for adding a "beautifully messy" approach to pop-overdrive songs such as "All That That Implies," but also for adding a "layer of humanity between me and a multi-national corporation."

Several of the songs on the album, including "Selfish" and "Me Around," were originally written for the never-recorded third RCA album, but Penn said that while he was waiting for that situation to be resolved he went ahead and wrote an entirely new record. "I'd written 15 songs for that album," he says, "but, for me, that whole scene was tainted, so I worked on getting new songs together to compliment this new deal." As to whether some of the more acerbic songs, such as the chaotic "Comfort," deal with both professional and personal relationships at the same time, Penn said, "when you're writing about a relationship, whether it's an interpersonal one or not, it's still about communication and trying to be understood on your side of the fence."

"Figment Of My Imagination," which ebbs and flows in several different guitar-and-keyboard-driven directions over its five-plus minutes, is also an example of the new "less tidy" sound Penn was striving for on Resigned. "There's a chunk of evolution that occurred on this record," he said.