Sound — 8
Singing for Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age for such a long time, Mark Lanegan has been spreading his wings with his solo projects for a long time as well, and showing his love of 1980s electronic rock music and 1960s psychedelia. On this dark collection of tunes, Lanegan finds himself crooning in a manner similar to leathery, folksy vocalists such as Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, sticking to the lowest end of his register, rather than his style with Screaming Trees. The album features a fair number of guests, from QOTSA's Josh Homme (who appears playing guitar on "Emperor"), The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, blues-rocker Duke Garwood, and former RHCP and Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons.
"Death's Head Tattoo" opens the proceedings with an electric beat and some interesting bass and synth playing that are about as far removed from his 90s alt-rock sound as you can get. But it's a strangely alluring track that's got a great melody and atmosphere, and in a lot of ways, reminds me of the work of supergroup Gone Is Gone with its mix of alt-rock, dark gothic croon, and ambient electronic texture. "Nocturne" utilizes a pretty similar formula, with a very Joy Division-esque bass line. The swelling synths are a bit more modern, but with Lanegan's voice, it still retains a rather classic sound. "Blue Blue Sky" has an almost lo-fi sound with its synth organ and purposely off-key vocals, and very little else except some synth arpeggios and string pads. Echo and the Bunnymen-esque guitars reverberate through "Beehive", which is almost about as musically upbeat as the album gets. "Sister" is a very slow-burning track that often reminds me of The Doors, but with a much more lo-fi atmosphere about it. "Emperor" is probably the hardest-rocking track on the album, definitely due to the involvement of Josh Homme and his fuzzed-out guitar playing and backing vocals.
"Goodbye to Beauty" takes a bit of a hard turn into acoustic territory, with heavily reverb-drenched ambient guitar swells complementing Lanegan's gravelly voice. "Drunk On Destruction" goes back into the standard-form electronic rock of the rest of the record, as does "First Day of Winter", which features some nice guitar arpeggios and a weird kind of psychedelic, almost Steven Wilson-esque atmosphere. Lastly, the album closes on "Old Swan", the album's longest track at just a touch over six-and-a-half minutes long. It's a great track with a sort of Krautrock-inspired beat and almost Sigur Ros-esque washes of guitar.
The writing and production on this album are pretty solid, and even though this style is not normally something I'd consider a go-to, I think Lanegan has done a wonderful job putting together many rather disparate elements and creating a rather cohesive whole out of it. The album is mixed in a very lo-fi kind of way, with not a lot of layers of sound, but a lot of reverb and other effects such as delay throughout, but unlike a lot of applications of this kind of sound, it really fits the vibe of the music quite well.
Lyrics — 8
The dark poetry of Mark Lanegan on this album is something that may not be to everyone's taste, but I can definitely appreciate the cryptic style he's going for on this record. Straight out of the gate, we're treated to some very weird and interesting lyrics in "Death's Head Tattoo": "Wild thing/See the monkey in the jungle swing/Canaray in the cavern sing/That the devil lives in anything/C'mon people/You know that I ain't got the wherewithal/When California starts to crawl/Makes a poor man leave his home", which doesn't really seem to have any kind of direct meaning to it, but certainly evokes a particular atmosphere. The lyrics are most certainly dark, definitely not of a pleasant and cheerful variety, and most of the time, comes off as very similar to this opening verse of "Nocturne": "Red lights, X-ray vision/A lonely drug is in my veins/Blood stained indecision/Holiness is burned away/Midnight, midnight calling/Color me insane". "Beehive" has an odd refrain of "honey just gets me stoned", which is about as close to a hook as this album gets.
Lanegan's vocals are definitely lower in register than fans of his work in Screaming Trees or Queens of the Stone Age will be used to, sounding like a strange hybrid of Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, and Tom Waits, and fits the dark atmosphere of this record very well, but with enough of a bluesy, grungey kind of soul to it that the darkness never really gets oppressive.
Overall Impression — 8
Not having heard much of Lanegan's solo work or too much of his Screaming Trees material, I was not too sure of what I was getting myself into when I first heard this record, but I'm glad that I've heard it. It's a stark and emotional record, with a lot of very interesting tones and instrumentation. This isn't going to be a record that will please people expecting something more along the lines of Lanegan's other bands, but taken on its own, it's a very good record with a lot of atmosphere and ambiance to it, and certainly a record that warrants repeated listening. It's a very difficult record to pin down in terms of genre and influences, and it sounds like very little out there right now. Definitely recommend giving this one a spin.