It’s hard to remember that Soulsavers is a collective now that Mark Lanegan’s draping his raspy croon all over things. The brainchild of producers Rich Machin and Ian Glover, Soulsavers is on only its third album, but Lanegan’s presence has taken their brooding, dark blend of electronica and grounded it firmly in a dark patch of earth. As on 2007’s It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land, Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) is undoubtedly at the heart of Broken, but he’s also joined by guests like Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, Pulp’s Mike Hawley, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton. There’s also newcomer Red Ghost, who more than carries her weight in making Broken a first-class Soulsavers disc.
Opening instrumental “The Seventh Proof” initially seems like a bit of misdirection, its stately piano and woodwinds standing in stark contrast to the uptempo songs that follow. “Death Bells” is a hard-charging rocker in the vein of former Soulsavers nuggets like “Ghosts of You and Me”, with Lanegan reveling in graveyard imagery, while “Unbalanced Pieces” is all slinky bassline and sensual. Those two tracks, though, begin to feel like Lanegan and company are just working off a little pent-up energy before getting to the real, sentimental business at hand.
Not surprisingly, since some of the more interesting moments on It’s Not How Far You Fall were covers, Broken hits its peak with Will Oldham’s “You’ll Miss Me When I Burn” and Gene Clark’s “Some Misunderstanding”. The simple piano figure and mournful cello of “You’ll Miss Me When I Burn” are a perfect match for Lanegan’s expressive baritone, while “Some Misunderstanding” soars despite lyrics like “I know if you sell your soul / To brighten your road / You might be disappointed in the ride”.
After that, Broken relaxes into a more easygoing, contemplative, and reasonably uplifting vibe. If there’s little as immediately striking as the disc’s first five songs, there are plenty of distinctive moments in the midst of some very solid songs. The mournful harmonica and dramatic coda of “Shadows Fall”, the brief moments of Spring-like woodwinds in the otherwise plaintive instrumental “Wise Blood”, the empty road tone of “Can’t Catch the Train” — moments like these pepper Broken and make the less assuming songs blossom over repeated listens.
Broken also rounds out by providing a full introduction to Sydney, Australia’s Rosa Agostino, under the name of Red Ghost. According to Machin, “This young Australian girl from Sydney kept on sending me demos … and she was better than most everything else we’d heard. We traded ideas, and it really gelled.” She duets with Lanegan on “Rolling Sky”, its tense arrangement of twangy guitar and squawky saxophones giving the mix of Agostino’s sultry vocals and Lanegan’s dark croon the feel of some kind of devils’ duet. For “By My Side” (which closes the album), she gets the spotlight all to herself, and does a fine, fine job, sounding a bit like P.J. Harvey in the process. Obviously, even though Lanegan currently gives Soulsavers its personality, there’s always room for new voices.