If there’s a constant in Mark Lanegan’s personal and professional life, it’s in his tendency to periodically flush out everything he knows. Booze, heroin, bands, and collaborators have all framed his existence with some kind of meaning and then been tossed out, sometimes returning, sometimes remaining dead and buried. Blues Funeral—Lanegan’s stubbornly against-type 2012 album, where he folded in, of all things, an impulse for electronica and a dash of New Romantic swagger—had started to look like an anomaly in his canon, a bungled attempt at channeling unlikely influences that were then left to drift into the pool of past-life identities he’s accumulated. His 2013 covers record, Imitations, drew on work by Greg Dulli, Nick Cave, Kurt Weill, and John Cale—in other words, exactly the sort of influences you’d expect the former Screaming Trees frontman to be channeling. But here he is with another album as the Mark Lanegan Band, which in part gets back to the feel he was chasing on Blues Funeral, albeit with a more assured hand ghosting through it.
The story behind Phantom Radio is of someone undergoing a unique conflict with his own past. On one hand it’s clear Lanegan wants to make a break from previous working methods, writing faster, more efficiently, and embracing technology by recording on his phone. But he still has a clutch of older influences on his shoulder that he’s determined to rinse out in song, including a wide array of styles from the ’80s and ’90s that were completely fenced off from his world in Screaming Trees. It’s not always the most palatable way to experience Lanegan, especially when he channels the MOR-hop of Morcheeba on “The Killing Season”, clumsily fusing it with lyrics that are straight out of his dead-eyed-drunk past (“I wear my old grey overcoat,” he growls, as the song fades to a close). Lanegan has never come across as someone who’s at ease with his past or present, so the heart of the struggle is familiar here, even if the tools aren’t. It makes sense that Kurt Cobain was an ally in the grunge era—both often came across as being remarkably uncomfortable in their own bodies on stage.
The common feel in a handful of songs here is one of mini symphonies, condensed down into pocket-sized works that create a juxtaposition between Lanegan’s large and small inclinations. “Harvest Home” is one of the strongest works from a lyrical perspective, but its execution is an odd mixture of flat, tinny beats and swooping synthesized strings. It’s a trick Lanegan likes to repeat. “Floor of the Ocean” has a similar uplift, undercut by a moodiness reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen circa “The Killing Moon”. On “Seventh Day”, there’s an airy, flute-driven ambience and a bed of electronics, none of which are elements most longstanding Lanegan fans probably ever expected him to be working with, but ones which he’s becoming increasingly at ease with judging from this album. “Waltzing in Blue” lands somewhere between the frigid melodrama of Joy Division and Beth Gibbons’ mournful darkness in Portishead, with Lanegan providing the perfect male flipside to her damaged wail.
Phantom Radio also provides plenty of moments that don’t startle, with a generous portion of it anchored in the stripped-down sinking feeling Lanegan has fitfully returned to since The Winding Sheet in 1990. He throws out “Judgement Time” early in the record, but it’s among his best on this collection, getting back to something resembling the blackness of “Eyes of a Child”, where the sheer coercion of his voice overwhelms from the second it’s introduced. It’s noticeable how Lanegan’s voice has become more brittle over the years, becoming less like a drunk preacher who’s going to gut you and eat you and more like someone quaking in fear of an insufferable end. On the similarly bare “I Am the Wolf” and “The Wild People” you can hear the quiver in his voice, feel the tremors in his hands. It’s not hard to conclude that this is the person Lanegan’s running from in his other material here, although one thing he is remarkably good at across his body of work is letting in disarming moments of vulnerability, where he pulls you in to spectate upon the wreck of his life. On Phantom Radio there are just a few too many times when it’s all dressed up in unnecessary complication.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/11UpDYv