Surprises are very seldom bestowed by Isobel Campbell, or by Mark Lanegan. Given just a picture to judge either party, you’d be able to tell what kind of music they’ve made their names for – she whimsical folksy tunes with Belle and Sebastian and The Gentle Waves, he rocky growls with the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age. Yet as a couple, they have formed the most remarkable of pairings, crafting an album of such beauty that past reference is made redundant.
Ballad Of The Broken Seas, despite its deceptively bleak title, traverses a realm of styles which is striking as it is enchanting. Born of Campbell’s fascination with girl-guy couplings, namely Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the more intense marriage of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, the album was conceived by a meeting between Campbell and Lanegan in Glasgow when Lanegan was on tour not long ago.
Much like the influences that went into it, the play between Campbell and Lanegan is flawless. Campbell’s breathy, glacial whispers provide the complete equal to Lanegan’s signature drawl. Where Campbell drifts and dances, Lanegan follows dropping cigarette ash and spilling whiskey.
Campbell is not one to mope in the depths of despair, as her past work has illustrated. Yet the brief to write some songs which Lanegan would sing couldn’t help but produce some morose tones.
From the rolling Latin symphony of the antiwar Deus Ibi Est, so begins a journey through a distorted dream world: “Impending storm rise up rise up, oh demons I shall shame you, down the barrel of my gun and one by one I’ll name you.”
Black Mountain capitalizes on Campbell’s proficiency with the cello and herScottish descent, which flake the album into folk, especially towards its end. Album standout False Husband, has a desolate twang which shrouds Lanegan while Campbell wafts around in shimmering violin and string work. It could easily soundtrack a Tarantino movie or, I daresay, Twin Peaks.
The Lanegan penned Revolver is a dramatic duet and one of the few where him and Campbell go toe to toe throughout. The rework of Hank Williams‘ Ramblin’ Man was the first single to be lifted, and a spectacularly seedy one at that, featuring an Ann Summers’ whip as an instrument. It doesn’t really fit the album in its context and is by no means an indicator of its sound.
The latter part of the album adopts a more optimistic and carefree tone which is dominated by Campbell. Honey Child What Can I Do? is so uplifting its difficult to remember Mark Lanegan is that happy sounding guy singing with the girl.
Considering much of the album was made by Campbell posting tapes to Lanegan to add vocals to, it reflects on the implicit chemistry of the pair that they could produce such a consummate, passionate and unerring affair. One wonders what a long term relationship could produce.