There was a time when the news that Mark Lanegan was releasing a record on Heavenly Recordings might have raised some eyebrows. How could signing the gravel-voiced frontman of second-tier Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees and occasional Queens Of The Stone Age auxiliary fit into the creative vision of a label committed to preaching the gospel of woozy psychedelia? However, since he started experimenting with more electronic textures on 2011 track 'Ode To Sad Disco', Lanegan has been on a reinvention drive, transitioning away from his traditional split menu of overdriven guitar rock and skeletal blues onto a strict diet of Beach House synths and Slowdive swells.
His last record ‘Phantom Radio’ and its accompanying ‘No Bells On Sunday’ EP (both of which were recorded under his Mark Lanegan Band moniker, just to fuck with your iTunes ordering) were the first fruits of this new musical harvest. Unsurprisingly, these releases were stuttering affairs that lacked the singular vision of his finest records (‘Blues Funeral’ and ‘Bubblegum’), but their recording process gave Lanegan the space and time he needed to recalibrate and hone his craft through a process of trial and error, allowing him to understand his own strengths and limitations in this strange new environment.
So now, rather than catching him on the hop like before, the wonderfully-titled ‘Gargoyle’ finds Lanegan stepping off his train of thought at new sonic destination. His dual past identities of the full-throated rocker who belted out QOTSA’s ‘Song For The Dead’ and the ragged balladeer and regular Isobel Campbell collaborator who recorded 'I'll Take Care Of You' can both still be heard in the hazy mix. But, where once he sounded a little like Tom Waits trying to smooth down his hair and summon up enough decorum to blag his way into a member’s club, now he sounds like Tom Waits trying to smooth down his hair and blag his way past Saint Peter.
It’s the contrast between the grandiosity of his surroundings and Lanegan’s own grotesque voice that forms the backbone of ‘Gargoyle’. The more beautiful and ethereal the music around him becomes, the uglier his own voice sounds. While harmonic guitars chime and flocks of mellotrons float by his own little corner of paradise, he continues to ruminate on his two favourite subject matters: sickness and spiders. Shimmering, gorgeous tracks like ‘Sister’ and ‘Blue Blue Sea’ seem to envelop him without ever managing to penetrate through his granite skin to alleviate his ex-junkie blues.
Lanegan might have successfully left rehab some time ago, but the self-destructive appetites that landed him there in the first place continue to haunt his lyrics. “Honey just gets me stoned,” he admits over ‘Beehive’s oddly industrial beat (which sounds a little like someone got confused and booked the band Ministry for a gig at the Vatican). His perennial role as his own worst enemy is also subject of the confessional ‘Drunk On Destruction’ where Lanegan paints a heart wrenching self-portrait of a man who can’t help but reject any shot at happiness that might come his way.
As an album, it must be said, ‘Gargoyle’ never truly coalesces. The distance between the bright, ethereal shoegaze sound and Lanegan’s dirty, earthbound voice is just too great to be reconciled (although 'Nocturne' does come incredibly close). But just because two compounds don’t mix doesn't mean they can't form something beautiful together, like the rainbows that form over an oily puddle. Sure, Mark Lanegan could probably have knocked off a far more cohesive desert-blues record with ease. Instead he has taken the harder path and acted on his desire to play against type, creating something far more fragmented and fascinating in the process.
Words: Josh Gray
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