It’s a strange thing that, as Mark Lanegan becomes more ubiquitous, his own material seems to be scarcer and scarcer. Since Lanegan’s last solo album, the fine “Bubblegum”, came out in 2004, his voice has been everywhere, but his substance has been hard to track down.
I guess you can trace this to Josh Homme’s brilliant deployment of Lanegan’s gravity, his curdled threat, his staunch intimations of regret, on various Queens Of The Stone Age and Desert Sessions excursions. Lanegan’s effortless gifts, and his presumed reluctance to write his own songs, seem to have resulted in a career reinvention as hired man: with the mediocre Soulsavers; on the pretty decent first album with Isobel Campbell; on the supposed collaboration with Greg Dulli, The Gutter Twins, where only Lanegan’s two songs as sole writer avoided the overwrought dreariness of all Dulli’s projects since The Afghan Whigs‘ “Black Love”.
This second album with Campbell doesn’t herald the return of Lanegan as an engaged songwriting contributor, exactly: everything on “Sunday At Devil Dirt” is written by Isobel Campbell, apart from one tune by a certain Jim McCulloch who, I must admit, is a new name to me. But it is an enormously entertaining record, and one in which Lanegan is by some distance the dominant voice; a voice fetishised, even, as some doomy signifier of Americana.
More so than on its predecessor, “Ballad Of The Broken Seas”, Campbell goes absent for long stretches of “Sunday At Devil Dirt”, preferring to let Lanegan loiter darkly in the spotlight. In some ways, it’s a kind of pantomime of Americana, the language – “Shotgun Blues”, “Salvation”, “Trouble”, “Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart” are a few of the titles – being so dustblown and full of butch western existentialism.
Unlike the sort of stuff which deals in these clichés and purports to be “authentic” and “honest”, however, I get the impression that Campbell and Lanegan are revelling in a sense of high theatre, which is really engaging. The obvious comparison, of course, is with Lee Hazlewood and various female accomplices, who mastered this kind of almost-kitsch, hyper-real vision of the old, weird America.
But Campbell’s erratic visits to the mic mean that, unlike “Ballad Of The Seven Seas”, this one can’t be categorised so easily as Lee’n’Nancy redux. Her focus on Lanegan makes “Sunday At Devil Dirt” (a suitably ridiculous title) a kind of close study of the American baritone. Lanegan, needless to say, has a voice thick with its own character: all he has to do is turn up, and a song gains the implied weight of a man who has seen terrible things and, somehow, survived.
Campbell’s often string-laden settings, though (she produced this lovely-sounding record herself), draw very broad allusions to some of Lanegan’s antecedents. There’s Hazlewood, obviously (just check out “The Raven”, for a start), but also Leonard Cohen (the opening “Seafaring Song”), Johnny Cash (“Salvation”, “Sally, Don’t You Cry” and “Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart”) and even Dr John (the lascivious gris gris of “Back Burner”).
Lanegan sings brilliantly, and these are certainly better songs – fuller, meticulously crafted, occasionally with the swing of a standard – than I can recall Campbell having written before. In fact, there’s another way of looking at “Sunday At Devil Dirt”; as a Lanegan solo album that’s part of a performer’s tradition, rather than a singer-songwriter tradition. Consequently, you could see it as a sequel of sorts to Lanegan’s 1999 covers set, “I’ll Take Care Of You”.
That album’s title track, an old Brook Benton song, is the clear inspiration behind Campbell’s “Come On Over (Turn Me On)” here, an outstanding vamp that transcends the lush rootsiness of “Devil Dirt”’s general vibe. Here’s Lanegan and Campbell come-hithering each other in traditionally seductive ways, a classic bit of low-lit roleplay; ersatz erotic melodrama, for sure, but maybe all the more enjoyable for its naked theatricality.