Phantom Radio is the quintessential Mark Lanegan album, both a great starting point for those uninitiated to his world and a document that the most devoted members of his cult fanbase will cherish as one of his best.
Few artists can seamlessly segue from rock to electronica to country-folk, all the while carrying each project with panache rather than foundering into embarrassment. Fewer still can imbue each of these disparate genres with the distinctive mood of vintage blues. In fact, Mark Lanegan may be the single entity bearing that distinction, sidestepping into nearly every musical genre and making them sound as though they were constructed as a pulpit for him. The man’s career has been anything but predictable, but to further flout conventions, Lanegan has been increasingly prolific as his 50th birthday closes in. As a manifestation of that, he has achieved a watershed moment in Phantom Radio.
After a solo career that began with a run of darkly pastoral folk-blues albums (1990’s The Winding Sheet through 2001’s Field Songs), Lanegan began reinventing himself and exiled preconceptions with Bubblegum in 2004. Experimental yet with his blues focus still prominent, it tossed rough rock elements back in the mix. That record’s aesthetic continued with a heavy electronica influence in 2012’s followup Blues Funeral. With Phantom Radio going further in that vein, the three records together amount to a thematic trilogy, on par with David Bowie’s Berlin triage and Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years.
The lynchpin of Lanegan’s stylistic evolution -- the Brian Eno to his Bowie -- is Alain Johannes, the singer’s principle instrumentalist and producer since Bubblegum. The pair’s collaboration bears its strangest fruit yet in Phantom Radio. The strongest, most full-bodied installment in the trilogy, it showcases the various sides of Lanegan in a cohesive manner. He sounds at his most self-assured, having advanced beyond the experimental stage by taking what worked on those previous records, leaving behind what did not, and moving forward with a distilled mélange. Good as they were, Bubblegum was something of a tempered transition and Blues Funeral was a tad plodding and redundant, but Phantom Radio gets everything just right. It retains the trip-hop and Krautrock proclivities of its immediate predecessor, while merging the garage rock of Bubblegum and the more hushed tones of his first five solo records.
Of prime importance here is Lanegan’s voice, inimitable and the star of all he’s put it to. Years of clean living are catching up with his pipes, as his vocals sound more supple and smooth, the ravaged quality of years ago having largely been cleansed. His vocals’ regained dimensions still allow them to serve as the perfect vehicle for his lyrical concerns. Though he’s far from the first to pepper his lyrics with biblical touchstones or use concepts like the leviathan, the angel Gabriel, the devil, sin, atonement, and the like as muses, these hallmarks never feel hackneyed with Lanegan. Simply put, no other singer carries as much prophetic gravitas in his throat.
The record starts intriguingly with “Harvest Home”, melodic guitar lines augmented by hard-hitting digital percussion. Lanegan told The Quietus in August he used an iPhone app called FunkBox to compose a few of the songs, building a drum beat first, and this opening tune is an example of that. As it progresses, radiant synths come in, shimmering like diamonds in the back of a mine. Lanegan, meanwhile, sounds cavernous and all-encompassing, at peace with the transgressions that have led him to being made of stone, walking with ghosts, and chasing the devil away. Successor “Judgement Time” shifts the paradigm, Lanegan supported by a harmonium wheeze and a faint repetitive acoustic guitar strum. It has the vibe of awakening from a hallucinogenic dream, Lanegan’s velvet intonations rife with eschatological imagery: “I saw the feet of pilgrims bleeding / I saw whole cities drowning / I saw whole armies dying.” It has no shortage of dread, but it is underscored with acceptance, in turn accenting an unnerving tone.
“Floor of the Ocean” is equally trance-inducing and energizing, and is arguably the catchiest tune in Lanegan’s oeuvre. An infectious groove with an amalgamation of the icy and the warm, it bears an obvious Joy Division influence, defined by a mid tempo, steady driving rhythm and a thick bass line panning over the rippling keyboard pattern. Lanegan’s voice is higher than usual and almost unrecognizable at first, feminine harmonies lacing his crooning. Though not the best song on the record, it’s clearly the wisest choice for a lead single, as it epitomizes all Phantom Radio has to offer: the songwriter’s bread-and-butter themes of sin and redemption, his improved voice, and the incorporation of his various styles blended and streamlined.
In its wake, the remaining seven songs veer into their separate territories. Yet rather than sounding like a disjointed, career-spanning retrospective, the different modes and track list flow together naturally. “Killing Season” is indebted to Portishead and Sneaker Pimps in its noir nightclub ambience, Lanegan displaying the strut of a veteran who has seen it all and whose blood now runs cold as he sings, “If I smell the perfume of your blood / I know it’s just the incense of my drug.” This is contrasted with the stark blues of “I Am the Wolf”, built around a syncopated classical guitar reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen songs, “Avalanche” in particular. Lanegan’s voice drifts like a wind howling over a lonely desert, and it could have easily fit on one of his first albums. On the more fun side is “Seventh Day”, a spiritual sequel of sorts to “Methamphetamine Blues”. Whereas that tune opened a door to a dark room of paranoia and bedlam, this is a composed response. It has a similar pulse, but is more reserved than clamorous, the song steeped in nefarious seduction. Then there is “Torn Red Heart”, an unabashed country ballad which again sees Lanegan singing in his higher register. It would be at home on ‘70s AM radio with its Nashville sound, although it bears a Velvet Underground mark in the minimalist drums and genuinely pretty guitar work.
Closing it out is the dredging rumble of “Death Trip to Tulsa”, chugging like an unrelenting steam engine. Defiant with a death wish fatalism, the borderline industrial clatter and effects do well in their service of Lanegan’s survey of desolation. Near the middle point, crystalline synths emerge and cut through the grime, once again showing how well Lanegan’s distinct approaches can mesh. If it’s not the finest song in the batch, it’s close to it, and wraps Phantom Radio on a high note.
In total, Phantom Radio is the quintessential Mark Lanegan album, both a great starting point for those uninitiated to his world and a document that the most devoted members of his cult fan base will cherish as one of his best.