Where male falsetto voices can be unsettling – disembodied, artificial, androgynous, ethereal, cosmic, otherworldly – ultra-low-frequency voices like Mark Lanegan’s are supposed to have the opposite connotations. They are supposed to suggest a reassuring rootsiness and authenticity, which is why we are comfortable with Lanegan as the godfather of grunge, as the gothic crooner, as the ravaged blues singer, the windswept acoustic troubadour. But men with very low voices aren’t meant to delve into the synthetic soundscapes of electronica. When they do, the effects can often be deliberately jarring, like when Leonard Cohen started croaking over tinny drum machines and toy-town synths in the mid-1980s.
However, Lanegan seems to have used the ethereal oddities of his
It’s why he seems to have fitted quite comfortably into the world of left-field synth pop. Think Depeche Mode at their darkest, crank up the doom and pitch-shift Dave Gahan’s voice down an octave, and you’re close to the appeal of Gargoyle, Lanegan’s darkly compelling new album.
Lanegan is a serial collaborator, someone who likes working with people who will push him out of the box. Over a career of more than three decades he has mentored musicians who went on to become American rock royalty – from Kurt Cobain to Queens Of The Stone Age – but much of his most interesting and adventurous material has been recorded with British artists. There have been lengthy partnerships with Glaswegian singer Isobel Campbell, electronica duo Soulsavers and maverick multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood, not to mention one-off collaborations with the likes of Massive Attack, PJ Harvey and James Lavelle’s UNKLE.
Here his transatlantic partnership is with little-known English multi-instrumentalist Rob Marshall. Formerly a member of Yorkshire indie-rock outfit Exit Calm – who played on the same bill as Lanegan in 2008 – he now makes music from his home studio in Kent. On resuming contact recently, Marshall sent over a bunch of nascent electronic instrumentals he’d recorded. Lanegan, suitably enthused, started writing lyrics, eventually transforming them into six Lanegan/Marshall co-writes that provide some of the most spectactular moments on Gargoyle.
The opener “Death’s Head Tattoo” clanks and rolls ominously, fizzing with murderous imagery. “Drunk On Destruction” puts Marshall’s Johnny Marr-ish cascading guitar over a clanking drum ‘n’ bass loop. “Nocturne” is a piece of minor-key electronica that judders propulsively, powered by the Peter Hook twangs of Dutch bass guitarist Martyn LeNoble and a pleasing burble of arpeggiated synths. Even better is “Beehive”, a prowling post-punk belter powered by another Joy Division-like bassline from LeNoble.
But Lanegan’s usual amanuensis, longterm producer Alain Johannes, also plays an important role. He co-writes the poppiest moment on the album, “Emperor”, a maddeningly catchy glam rock shuffle that Lanegan likens to early-70s Kinks, where a spangly Johannes guitar riff dovetails nicely with Josh Homme’s high-pitched backing vocals. “Sister”, conversely, is an elemental tale of witches, woods, briars and savage kingdoms set against a woozy, hypnotic selection of Mellotrons, vintage analog synths and tremolo guitars.
After years of crippling heroin habit, Lanegan has been clean since the millennium, and now seems to be comfortable using addiction as a metaphor throughout the album. On “Nocturne” the pain of loneliness and bereavement is likened to “that lonely drug is in my veins”; on “Beehive” the drug is more of a metaphor for love (“in my head, buzzed as a bee’s nest… honey just gets me stoned”); on “Emperor” the protagonist needs another bitter pill to help fight the demons that enslave him; while “Sister” is haunted by the image of a “morphine-drugged”.
Most of all, Lanegan seems to revel in a certain bleakness. Against a deceptively happy melody and hymnal harmonies, “First Day Of Winter” seems to revel in the “icy tears” and the cold that “chills my veins”. And the closer “Old Swan” seems to take welcome extinction for a higher aim. Sung in a major key at the upper end of Lanegan’s register (which, in fairness, is still lower than most baritone voices), it’s a pulsating paean of praise to mother nature that takes on a spiritual dimension. “Though my soul is not worth saving/my mistress and my queen/your spirit is larger than my sin”. It’s a bleakness that is almost cleansing and redemptive.
You’ve started using more and more electronic instruments in recent years. Has it changed the way in which you write and work?
I started messing around with the synths a little bit on Field Songs back in 2001 and then with drum machines and synths on Bubblegum in 2004. By the time I made
What attracted you to Rob Marshall and his old band, Exit Calm?
Rob is an artist, really meticulous in the way he puts things together. I love his guitar playing and the sounds he gets. I love his songwriting and attention to detail.
Your producer Alain Johannes seems to play a more important role than usual on this record, both as a musician and a songwriter. What does he bring to your creative process?
Alain has played a huge role on my records since 2004. He brings so much to the table, often plays every instrument, records, mixes, co writes, you name it. He makes the entire process easier and enjoyable and is the most important musical partner I’ve ever had.
As well as working a lot with UK musicians, I notice you’ve been posting songs on Twitter by the likes of Robert Wyatt, John Martyn, the Kinks and John Cale. Is there a conscious Anglophile tendency at work here?
I’m pretty sure that nationality has been coincidental, to be honest. Duke Garwood – who contributes horns and guitars to “Sister” on this album” – is someone I approached about collaborating when we recorded the
Did you actually meet up with Rob for this record, or was it all done by mail and internet? Is that how you often work with UK collaborators?
So far, Rob and I have only worked long distance. It was the same with UNKLE. With Isobel Campbell, Soulsavers and Duke Garwood, some of it was done like that but most of the time we were in the same place while recording.
You have been posting angrily on Twitter about Trump since the election. Has any political sentiment made its way onto the album?
Anything that I’m feeling usually works its way into a song. But I might be the only one to know it…
INTERVIEW BY JOHN LEWIS
The June 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Summer Of Love, talking to the musicians, promoters and scenesters on both sides of the Atlantic who were there. Plus, we count down the 50 essential songs from the Summer Of Love, from The Seeds to The Smoke, and including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Elsewhere in the issue, we remember Chuck Berry, go on the road with Bob Dylan and there are interview Fleet Foxes, Fairport Convention, Fred Wesley, Jane Birkin and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ co-conspirators Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise. Our free CD has been exclusively compiled for us by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and includes cuts from Todd Rundgren, Neu!, Van Dyke Parks, The Shaggs, Arthur Russell and Cate Le Bon. Plus there’s Feist, Paul Weller, Perfume Genius, Ray Davies, Joan Shelley, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Johnny Cash, Alice Coltrane, John Martyn and more in our exhaustive reviews section