Few groups, currently active or otherwise, exemplify the dichotomies of personal torment and joy like the Soulsavers. Their relatively small output has a singular theme — that the path of redemption winds through perdition, and no one knows the value of salvation more than the damned. Helmed by Brits Rich Machin and Ian Glover, the collective’s fourth and latest offering, The Light the Dead See, continues this motif they’ve so thoroughly explored in the past, which remarkably continues to feel fresh rather than redundant. The message of trudging back through the ashes of burned bridges in hopes of making some final amends remains the same, but its presentation manifests anew.
The album finds Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan taking the microphone from Mark Lanegan, who fronted the group’s previous two efforts (Lanegan does make a cameo on “In the Morning”, however, essentially passing the torch to his successor). But Lanegan’s absence isn’t the only change of note; drastically downplayed are the Soulsavers’ electronica roots, continuing the trend set with 2007’s It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s How You Land of cross-pollinating genres to fashion a more organic aura with instruments that sound as though they were culled from a boarded-up antique shop. Dusty pianos, acoustic guitars, strings, horns, and ghostly choirs dominate. The result is a series of forlorn, scorched-earth soundscapes that paint an image of Dustbowl Americana.
Masterfully sequenced in a narrative of sorts, the record opens with the lonely sweep of instrumental “La Ribera”, suitably laying the canvas on which the ensuing ruminations play out. The brief piece evokes a hobo’s stroll through the American wasteland with its abandoned railroad track harmonica. Its follower, and the first appearance of Gahan, “In the Morning”, establishes the template of music and lyrics harmonizing to convey the ruin of the soul. The steadily rising tension and the strained violin create a funerary sense of unholy dread, Gahan reciting “Why can’t you hear me? / Why don’t you feel me?” as though he’s approaching the casket of a loved one.
Gahan’s sense of morbid guilt continues with lead single “The Longest Day”. A haunted house harmonium and acoustic guitar open the song’s shutters before Gahan and the backing of a gospel choir deliver the anthemic chorus: “This could be the longest day / And the dark has yet to come”. A distinct Leonard Cohen influence shines through on the organ-driven “Take Me Back Home”, the background vocals cooing as a defeated Gahan indulges in a nostalgic trip. “You take me back there / Take me back home, please / No, I can’t go in there / Just take me back home”, he intones in the song of longing. The sentimentality reaches its apex on the record’s finest number, “I Can’t Stay”, on which Gahan finally attains self-realization and release. It is the Soulsavers’ most moving number since 2007’s “Revival” (it’s surely no coincidence this song echoes the older one’s drum pattern in the refrain), daring the listener not to emote when Gahan declares he’s moving on from a destructive past, despite the temptation to remain: “I can’t stay for another day here with you / I feel like my time is running out / I know that much for sure”.
The record’s final two songs follow through on the narrator’s newfound enlightenment. Penultimate “Take” is an apocalyptic lullaby, the narrator delivering some deathbed advice he’s incurred from a life of scars. “Life is so short / And you’re going to get caught being bored / And the choices you make / And the demons you wake / Must be fought”, Gahan sings, the music alternating from minor piano notes to distortion-soaked guitar lines. Closer “Tonight” finds our protagonist speaking from the other side of death, calling back in comfort through the light: “I know you have that nagging sickness sometimes / We can change it all tonight”. The catharsis is achieved and radiates from Gahan and the cascading music supporting him.
As good as the record is, though, there are missteps. “Just Try” overplays its hand in the uplifting department. It’s not feel-good by any means — this is still the Sousavers, after all — but it comes across as the 12 steps by way of Hallmark. “Presence of God”, meanwhile, is a bit too lethargic and its sleepiness struggles to hold the listener’s ear.
And, of course, the record’s obvious challenge is whether or not Gahan fills Lanegan’s muddy shoes. He largely succeeds, and though it’s not really fair to compare the singers, such analysis is ultimately unavoidable. There is no doubting Gahan’s authenticity in the harrowing lyrics he sings here, the man’s battles with substance abuse and other personal struggles being well-documented. His baritone haunts the work like the specter possessing the Victrola on the album’s cover, yet at times his delivery comes off dry. Only in the discordant feedback waves of “Gone Too Far” does he really let loose and seem overcome. (Interestingly, it seems Machin and Glover excel in taking their singers of choice from their respective comfort zones and swapping them — Lanegan from the folk-blues of his solo work into an electronica setting and Gahan from Depeche Mode’s electronic MO to a more folk realm.)
In total, the album could serve as the soundtrack to HBO’s Carnivalé, not in a Tom Waitsian, circus music sense, but in the shared setting of the show and that evoked by the music. The theological and metaphysical concerns, the battle between fate and free will, the individual’s capacity for good and evil, all run as the lifeblood of both works. Viewed, or listened to rather, as a whole, The Light the Dead See achieves a result all too hard to pull off — it is theatrical without feeling like an act, saturated with atmosphere without being swamped in it.