With a long, unbroken run of excellent recordings including collaborations with Queens of the Stone Age and Isobel Campbell, Mark Lanegan deserves elevation to the front rank of modern rock artists.
Phantom Radio may be the album to finally force that shift in public perception. If so, it’ll be all the more impressive for being achieved with no dilution of his signature worldview of soul-ravaged blues fatalism, Lanegan being one of the few undeniable auteurs still working in the medium.
“Harvest Home” sets out his stall, the singer “wandering the floors with the ghosts I have known”, while arpeggiating guitars plummet slowly over a chilly synth pad and trenchant drums. It’s a declaration of proud resignation, Lanegan “happy to be made of stone” in the face of dark memories. “Judgement Time” finds him “blistered, just a strung-out angel” as the gloomy drone of harmonium soundtracks his Biblical torment. Things never get much cheerier: the visions of apocalyptic horror in “The Killing Season” include “skeletal hands... on my throat”, while the spectral “Waltzing in Blue” is no less pessimistic: “I work my way, hour by hour, down to decay.”
So what makes his grim litany so compelling, even uplifting? In part, it’s down to the arrangements Lanegan and producer Alain Johannes conjure to convey the spiritual essence of the songs – most effectively in the sombre electro-pop chug of “Floor of the Ocean” and the courtly pop melancholy of “Torn Red Heart”, where the guitar and synth recall Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, a precedent for Lanegan’s glorious darkness. And it’s also the way that his brooding baritone croon so vividly evokes his affinity for the fringes of society, as expressed in the plaintive “I Am the Wolf” (“...without a pack”). Unlike most gothic pop, Lanegan’s art is not a matter of fashion or mascara: it’s a genuine cri du coeur, as rare and beautiful as anything in music.