For the past decade or so, Mark Lanegan has been on something of a mission to expand his sonic palette, both through his collaborations and in his solo work. Hard rock, electronica and country-folk have all factored into his sprawling repertoire of late, in turn distancing him more and more from the blues blueprint of his earliest solo records. The compulsive collaborator that he is, it isn’t as odd as it may initially seem that it took another such alliance with a fellow musician to bring him back to his roots. The resulting effort with English multi-instrumentalist and solo artist Duke Garwood, Black Pudding, is full of theme songs for gunslingers, bluesmen and desert-wandering derelicts and is Lanegan’s most stripped-down record since the first to bear only his name, 1990’s The Winding Sheet. The musical sparseness of Black Pudding echoes that 23-year-old album’s acoustic minimalism, and thus feels like a stop back home after years exploring in the wilderness, with a new friend brought back to help share the tales of the experience.
Yet all this talk of the stripped-down arrangements is not to say they are bare bones or flat. On the contrary, Garwood’s soundscapes are diverse and unconventional, beguiling in their apparent simplicity and evoking moods and settings in equal measure. Though the acoustic guitar is the most recurrent instrument throughout the album, various odds and ends pop up to lend each song a unique flavor. “Pentecostal” sees a sitar undulating beneath the surface of a plucked guitar, augmenting an otherwise standard blues structure with a slight psychedelic or Eastern feel. Drum machine beats kick up dust on the blues-by-way-of-Mexico “Mescalito”, working with the imagery in Lanegan’s lyrics (“Words on written pages / Pound the coffin nails / Well, losing is contagious / Tied down to the rails”) to give the listener the sensation of walking through a ghost town from some Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The synthetic percussion pops up again on “Cold Molly”, electric keys making the piece a smoldering bit of sexed-up funk.
What is perhaps most impressive is that Garwood plays every instrument on the record, save for some guitar and keyboard parts provided by mixer Alain Johannes on two songs. Bookending the album are two instrumental pieces, the opening track being the one from which Black Pudding gets its name. An acoustic guitar-driven number, “Black Pudding” wavers between classical and spaghetti western, with Spanish flourishes thrown into the mix as well. It’s a fine track, but some of the shifts are disjointed, a trend that occurs in several songs on the record. At times, Garwood’s musical interludes are aimless and stretch on too long, being meandering more than compelling. That said, the spacious musical accompaniment Garwood provides allows Lanegan’s skill as a vocalist and lyricist to shine through.
Lanegan mainly adheres to his lyrical bread and butter of biblical imagery, blues tropes and gritty weariness, communicated by his sonorous pipes. He does venture into character-centric territory and a bit of social commentary in “War Memorial”, a first-person narrative of a fallen soldier. Lanegan sings in a higher, more sympathetic register than his normal rugged baritone on this track, depicting the horrors of war in images that seem to hail from All Quiet on the Western Front: “I saw a squad of deserters hung from an oak / Saw officers shot from their saddles / Driving snow through black smoke / With a pack of feral dogs snapping at my hooves / Eyes rolled back in their heads / The blank, blessed eyes of the dead.” A mournful wind instrument, possibly a saxophone or a trumpet, plays from behind in tribute to the dead, creating one of the more moving pieces of the record, a song that seems influenced by PJ Harvey’s war-study album Let England Shake. Elsewhere, Lanegan turns fatalistic on the twinkling piano discord of “Last Rung”, contradicts Neil Young on “Thank You” (“No redemption in the cards / Not only love can break your heart”) and gets seductive on “Cold Molly”, assuming the role of a man desperate to have his ashes hauled, spitting out thinly-veiled innuendos worthy of a Howlin’ Wolf romp and doing a James Brown bit, repeatedly urging Molly to “get on up”.
The lyrical centerpiece of Black Pudding is certainly “Death Ride”, a slice of hardscrabble poetry set to music. Accompanied by Garwood’s slowly building acoustic guitar and a droning violin, Lanegan stands weary but defiant, depicting Death as an entity he has no fear of facing down. “Death rides a white horse / And I ain’t seen him yet / And I’ve seen some things / That I can’t soon forget,” he sings, proud of his resilience and daring the Grim Reaper to go on and just try to kill him. Conversely, a narrator with opposing views, more than ready to be swept off this mortal coil, is presented in “Shade of the Sun”. Here, Lanegan’s character is adrift in the world, pleading to an indifferent God to remove him from it and release him from his sorrows: “Kept a hammering away at the gate / I kept a-knocking / But I was far too late.”
Apart from Lanegan’s voice and words and Garwood’s trove of instruments, the third factor that cannot be ignored in Black Pudding’s makeup is the production. The album sounds as though it were recorded in a shack during the Dust Bowl era, the ambience being so palpable. Background blemishes, fingers sliding on the guitar strings and Lanegan’s voice seeming to emanate from wooden planks all sound so intimate, compelling the listener to imagine the creaking of floorboards and rocking chairs to be in the audio as well.
As it stands, Black Pudding is something of a souvenir record for fans; it’s hard to believe anyone not already well-traveled in Lanegan or Garwood’s terrains will find or enjoy the album. That said, the album will likely be taken in and prized by fans from both camps. Yes, it takes several listens to really get into it and separate the songs from one other, and there are a few duds (“Sphinx” and “Driver”, in particular), but the term “cult album” was coined for records such as Black Pudding.