Lanegan’s recent prolificacy continues with the first full album of original tracks from his band since 2012’s Blues Funeral. It’s something of a departure – but for good or ill?
That it’s been a long old road for Mark Lanegan is a fact that is, by now, well established. As is the power of That Voice, the one which seems to carry the weight of every moment of hardship those years have bourne, making every utterance seem to ooze sadness, regardless of what it is he’s saying. In recent times that strength has often been his saving grace: the gothic miserablism he settled into back in the 90s has evolved very little in the interceding years. Sure, it didn’t really need to – the gravel in his voice suited it so very well, but after so many records treading the same ground he’s almost a parody at times – “there’s nothing to say/the sky is so gray” on Harvest Home about sums up where Lanegan is at right now. However he could never be accused of staying within a musical comfort zone in the same way – though he always came back to a Cash inflected dark Americana in his earlier solo outings the list and breadth of his collaborators over the years is staggering – in the past couple of years alone he’s made songs with both Earth and Moby. And made both work. Even so Phantom Radio is the biggest departure his solo records have ever taken, doubling down on the 80s synth pop of Blues Funeral’s Ode to Sad Disco and bringing in all the influences you might be surprised to learn Lanegan holds dear. It’s an admirable move for a man who could get by doing the same thing until his voice gives out. But the results are…mixed.
Ode to Sad Disco seemed like a brilliant little anomaly in the context of Blues Funeral but an unlikely new direction for him to pursue further. But as soon as the 90s pop rock beats of Harvest Home kick in you see that’s exactly what he’s gone and done. They feel of a time that isn’t exactly remembered fondly right now (but hey, give it a few years) and feel a little cheesy and anachronistic, particularly up against Lanegan’s elemental voice. The synths are all casio 80s, further making the arrangements occasionally feel a little…cheap. It’s fair to say this isn’t the best iteration of the Mark Lanegan band, though once the instinctive revulsion that comes from hearing something so out of time out of nowhere fades it is…not terrible. They have their moments. But a song like Floor of the Ocean feels like a moody ode to 80s goth, and whilst the word Gothic may be used often in conjunction with the man himself it’s never that goth to which people refer. And at times during Phantom Radio you’d wish they’d never have to.
That the results of this departure don’t quite gel together properly is especially odd considering the fact Lanegan sounds as comfortable in his skin as he ever has. There’s a laugh at the start of The Seventh Day that doesn’t sound even remotely bitter or hollow. Lanegan is happy here. Sure, he’s still singing as the Man in Black, the man who done seen too much, but for the first time he sounds like he’s playing a part. The line “I wear my old gray overcoat” on The Killing Season makes it sound like he’s putting on a costume. And loving every moment of it. Comparing today’s Lanegan live to the reluctant frontman of the Screaming Trees may seem like comparing black with a really, really dark gray to those who haven’t been following him all that time – he’s still about as still and non-communicative as he ever was, only now he’s not gripping that mic stand like he’s lost at sea and it’s the last piece of driftwood from his sunken galleon. If you squint and tilt your head a little, he almost looks like he’s enjoying himself.
Which is a beautiful thing in itself, but comfort is worn better than some artists than others, and for Lanegan it’s a mixed blessing. Like Blues Funeral before it Phantom Radio has a lot to love about it but it still feels lightweight in the main compared to his earlier work. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the slower, more brooding numbers that lean closer to Lanegan’s trademark sound like Judgement Time work better – he has, after all, had a lot more practice in that field. There are out of character moments that show he can flourish in this new guise. The surprisingly hearty wrenching ballad Torn Red Heart is a triumphant, elegant number that proves Lanegan doesn’t have to rely on his voice alone to disarm. The the more overtly pop driven numbers aren’t necessarily bad but feel undercooked – a shame as Ode to Sad Disco is one of his finest moments of recent years. Not that they all fail – it’s hard not to fall for the weird sensation of Lanegan doing a joyful la-la-la on Seventh Day amidst neatly arranged flutes and pulsating bass for instance. He’s still creating a few gems in each of his regular outings, but the honest verdict is that mostly it feels slight. If that’s due to the happy, confident Lanegan not having the pathos of the Lanegan of old – well, who are we to complain? If anyone has earned an era of peaceful creation it’s veteran campaigner Mark Lanegan, serial collaborator with a growl that bears a rumbles like a force of nature, something that sounds carved in grantite or like it rises from the soil iteself. There’s a reason all reviews of his work come around to that voice, the one sounds like it bears a thousand sorrows – it would be selfish to feel too sad because it sounds like it’s shed a few these days.