Imitations proves once again that even after four decades in the game, Mark Lanegan is not an artist content to conform to expectations, but one that will continue crossing borders to indulge his muse.
Mark Lanegan is nothing if not a man of diverse tastes. Influences from across the musical spectrum have shaped his craft since day one, and the gunpowder-voiced bard has never been shy about citing his personal beacons in interviews. Such admiration for the work of his forbearers and peers, and his keen ear for attention, has likewise manifested in Lanegan also being a deft interpreter of others' songs, something he has done since covering Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on his first solo outing, 1990's The Winding Sheet. With his solo career enjoying a renewed vitality, it is thus fitting that he would choose now to release another covers album.
A tad self-deprecating in its title, Imitations is the third record to bear Lanegan's name in two years (counting Black Pudding, his collaboration with Duke Garwood), marking this as a prolific period in his output, reactive to the eight-year drought in his solo career between 2004's Bubblegum and 2012's Blues Funeral. Unlike the progression of those last two records, Imitations is a return to form in its hushed musical aesthetic, shedding those albums' respective unhinged swamp rock and electronica-meets-blues flavors. Rather, it is a sequel of sorts to Lanegan's first covers record, 1999's I'll Take Care of You, and as such it largely adheres to that album's template while also expanding on it. As with the previous covers album, Imitations sees Lanegan taking a handful of obscure songs from artists and genres not ordinarily associated with each other, plus a few better known cuts, and stripping them down to minimalist reworkings. Differing from I'll Take Care of You's makeup, though, is the added texture of strings evoking '70s ballads and some subtle experimental sonic flourishes.
Kicking the record off is Chelsea Wolfe's "Flatlands", coming through the stereo like a chilly breeze blowing over Kansas plains in a brittle winter. The hypnotic acoustic guitar, each string delicately picked, merges with Lanegan's dusky voice singing lyrics of longing for a lush and fecund terrain now barren. The harmony between the lyrics, Lanegan's delivery and the instrumentation--which includes the first appearance of a string section toward its conclusion--when the narrator realizes what he longs for is "never coming back" perfectly create the sense of desolation in both imagery and mood. The opposite effect, that of full warmth, comes on the song's heels with "She's Gone", a Vern Gosdin tune and not, as has been bafflingly reported, the Hall & Oates number. While the lyrics of mourning a lover's departure keep the mood dour, the country pop arrangement and vocal harmonies prevent it from being overwhelming. Anchoring the song is Lanegan's stunning vocal take, the throaty projection he emits on the chorus and the smoothness in the verses showing a degree of suppleness he hasn't displayed in years.
Another atmospheric shift comes with "Deepest Shade", a Twilight Singers rarity never to appear on an album, written by Lanegan's fellow Gutter Twin Greg Dulli. A nighttime desert setting saturates the piece in its minor piano chords and vibraphone percussion. Haunted with emotional wreckage, it's heartrending when Lanegan croons the refrain: "They say it calls to you / My love, I hope it's true / This deepest shade of blue / My love, I give to you." When the strings come in on the second verse, it enhances the weight rather than giving way to melodrama. From there, Lanegan pays homage to Nancy and Frank Sinatra with back-to-back versions of "You Don't Live Twice" and "Pretty Colors". It's tempting to see Lanegan's choice of the former as a self-conscious wink into his own reputation as a survivor against all odds, while the latter has a slight spaghetti western feel in its brushed drum pattern and harpsichord notes.
Closing out Side One is Nick Cave's "Brompton Oratory", probably the cut that will end up garnering the most attention from fans and critics. It opens with almost baroque instrumentation, folding in a brassy big band element that fades to the background as the vocals take center stage. Musically, it's not as sparse as Cave's original, defined by piano, echoing guitar strumming and a somber trumpet. As personal as the song is in its original form, Lanegan does it justice, his voice more weathered than Cave's, the quivering timbre in it having the worn character of an ancient cathedral's oak walls.
Side Two isn't as immediate or strong as its predecessor. While Lanegan returns some menace to the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht standard "Mack the Knife", the highlight of this second half is lead single "I'm Not the Loving Kind", Lanegan going for grandiosity with the John Cale song. Backed by a string section that rises and swells and a choir of backing vocals, Lanegan makes the cut his own, the self-effacing lyrics sounding as though they were penned by him. "You don't believe it, yes it must be true / How I lost all the love I had in you" is a helluva biting double-edged couplet. "Send me please no words of regret / Cause I'm not the loving kind": coming from Lanegan's pipes, the sentiment is that much more lacerating.
Before the album wraps with the cinematic "Autumn Leaves" -- the last of three Andy Williams covers on the release -- Lanegan gets in one of the most experimental entries in his oeuvre, a rendition of Gerard Manset's "Elegie Funebre" sung in the original French. It is a daring move, one that could backfire into ridiculousness, but Lanegan sings it as though it were his native tongue. The support of nervous, paranoia-inducing music and cooing backing vocals give the piece a palpable eeriness. The song stands as a specific example of Lanegan's continued ability to branch out from any perceived comfort zone and break new ground. Imitations as a whole shows this as well, proving once again that even after four decades in the game, Lanegan is not an artist content to conform to expectations, but will continue crossing borders to indulge his muse.