A new Mark Lanegan album is always welcome. Having cut his teeth with numerous bands and projects over the years, his is a voice that simply wraps itself around your heart and never lets go. Those who first encountered him in Screaming Trees will have fond memories of Uncle Anaesthesia or Sweet Oblivion, and the same will almost certainly go for those who first heard those golden tonsils on any of his work with Isobel Campbell, The Gutter Twins, Queens Of The Stone Age or Soulsavers (to name just a few).
If you’re not already familiar with Lanegan, Gargoyle is as good a place to start as any, but be aware, there’s an Aladdin’s cave of material out there and your bank balance will take a kicking as soon as you dip your toe because you can never have too much of a good thing. Somehow, his voice is getting better with age, it’s getting deeper, more expressive, and even more evocative. Lanegan could sing the Tory Party manifesto and make it sound passionate and full of emotion.
This latest effort took shape in the cloud, with an exchange of files between Lanegan and cohort Rob Marshall forming the basis of the album. The pair met when Soulsavers played with Marshall’s band Exit Calm in 2008; a collaboration and an email exchange later found Marshall supplying Lanegan with 10 songs to work with. Six of those made the cut and the rest were put together by Lanegan and long-time collaborator Alain Johannes. The result is a record that finds itself at the point where the Mark Lanegan Band (old chums Josh Homme and Greg Dulli make appearances too), Mark Lanegan as a solo artist, and Mark Lanegan as a collaborator meet. Not that this is problematic in the slightest, because Gargoyle manages to be one of the most consistent and rewarding records of Lanegan’s career so far.
Embracing the electro influences he explored on Phantom Radio, Gargoyle gets the mix just right. Death’s Head Tattoo opens the album up with tight beats and blurred guitar washes. Lanegan’s baritone drawl simply drips over this finely honed gothic atmosphere as allusions to Gary Numan’s Are Friends Electric? call out from the shadows. Nocturne channels the tautness of Joy Division (Hook’s clanking bass in particular), where heightened emotions clash with a cold and foreboding backdrop. Lanegan conjures up a film noir landscape and inhabits it like a shady gumshoe lurking in the shadows.
At the poppier end of the spectrum is Beehive, a song that exudes positivity, even if Lanegan insists that everywhere he looks is a bummer. He also claims to get stoned on honey, so it’s understandable that despite the slight bummer, he’s in a pretty good mood. With its shimmering guitar lines and earworm chorus, it’s an oddly upbeat place for Lanegan to find himself. He doesn’t stop there though, Emperor’s sprightly and direct rock stomps through the city with a certain swagger as Lanegan struggles with his demons and tries to set things right. It’s here that his voice sounds more grizzled, grated, smoke infused and lacquered with liquor than anywhere else in his extensive back catalogue. If he gets any deeper, he’ll be able to commune with whales in the depths of the ocean.
He closes the album with Old Swan. An insistent drum pattern beats at the heart of a vast blurred expanse created by the kind of guitar washes that My Bloody Valentine created. A less assured vocalist could become overpowered by such a sonic landscape, but Lanegan rides the waves of sound perfectly to create something elegant and utterly beautiful. If this is the direction he decides to pursue in the future, then the future is most certainly bright. More of Mr Lanegan’s special honey will be needed. And anyone worried that his blues influences aren’t represented need not fret. Blue Blue Sea might well burble with electronic menace, but the blues seeps into every corner. Similarly, Sister is in smouldering spiritual blues territory; it might be simplistic, but it is effective and emotionally charged. Gargoyle is yet another fantastic album from Mark Lanegan, and one that points to a new path. It’ll be interesting to see where it leads.