Cult bard's new LP finds him continuing to deliver hardscrabble tales of dashed romance and yearnings for second chances amid bluesy, dark wave-laden compositions.
Mark Lanegan has donned the tarnished, starry crown of a cult legacy artist. Now 52 and in his fourth decade in the music business, he’s settled into his role as grizzled elder statesman and underground bard. While many in his position are content to let their outputs dwindle as they assume a sage role, Lanegan’s artistry has been experiencing a prolific boon over the last few years. For a guy whose albums once dropped at an average rate of one every four years, it’s no exaggeration to say he’s been cranking them out of late. Gargoyle, his tenth LP and fourth in five years, arrives with the Lanegan mold carved in stone. Though surprises are naturally hard to come by -- especially considering how many genres he’s mined over the years across his myriad collaborations and solo outings -- he’s managed to keep his trademark sound fresh and compelling while injecting a few deviations.
Gargoyle continues on the trajectory established by 2014’s Phantom Radio of merging the pensive blues-based tunes of his early records with the dark wave, electronica, and blistering rock he’s brought to the fore more recently. The lyrical fixations remain on gothic Catholicism (as if the title didn’t give that away), ruminations on sin, death, and redemption, and vividly macabre imagery. Despite being his mainstays, their delivery through his sandpaper pipes keeps them from feeling prosaic. Much has been said of Lanegan’s raspy baritone, but his deft control of this instrument is indeed his signature. The lived-in richness of his voice imbues authenticity to his hardscrabble tales of dashed romance and yearnings for second chances. That it keeps getting stronger as the years and albums roll on is striking, evoking a range of emotions and attitudes despite its gruffness.
As always, there’s a surfeit of cameos from Lanegan’s noteworthy entourage, with Josh Homme, Greg Dulli, Jack Irons, Duke Garwood, and Martyn LeNoble all contributing. The heavy hitters, though, are Eleven’s Alain Johannes and Exit Calm’s Rob Marshall. The former has been the Richards to Lanegan’s Jagger for years and continues to serve as producer and soundscape-weaver. Paired with Marshall, one or both shares a songwriting credit on each of the album’s ten tunes.
Opening with a metallic crinkle and heartbeat pulse bubbling up from under the floor, “Death’s Head Tattoo” is as menacing as it gets. In the midpoint of each line in the verses, synths and percussion drop like waves crashing. An eerie, paranoid ambiance takes over in the refrain, Lanegan’s husky drawl plummeting to an even lower register. The moribund imagery of men swinging from gallows, creatures wading through evil gardens, and California crawling off to God knows what create a thoroughly apocalyptic vibe. In a sense, it’s Lanegan-by-numbers, but epitomizes so much of what he’s about. Perhaps there’s never been a more Laneganesque line than what features in the bridge: “Better the devil you know / Than the one that you don’t.”
From there, lead single “Nocturne” rumbles with a cavernously down-tuned bass offset by crystalline synths flittering about. It echoes as though emanating from a catacomb, the lyrical desperation putting you in the mindset of a prisoner whose isolation is causing him to hallucinate or fantasize destruction. “Do you miss me, miss me, darling? / God knows I’m missing you / Somewhere there’s two trains colliding / That’s what this sickness brought me to," Lanegan sings in the refrain. This idea is reprised in the aptly titled “Drunk on Destruction”, so much that it feels like a sequel. Clamorous with rapid fire percussion and post-punk elements, the music is more confrontational here, but the resigned tone in the vocals implies his narrator is ready to accept the death he’s due. The abrupt way it fades out simulates the character’s stated feeling of dissipation.
Elsewhere, “Blue Blue Sea” finds Lanegan sounding like a preacher holding court in some gnarled cathedral. Jittery synths undulate amid a seasick harmonium dirge, Lanegan’s girlfriend Shelley Brien serving to lightly soothe the unease with her harmony vocals. Of note, it’s the tune from which the album gleans its title, Lanegan mentioning a “gargoyle perched on gothic spire”. In a similar vein is “Sister”, its B3 organ wavering and creating the sensation of greeting a hazy dawn. Near the end, a drowsy saxophone comes in with lightly rolling keys. On the more aggressive side, “Beehive” is a beleaguered rocker that finds the singer coiling his vocals around the syllables and squeezing out all manner of sympathy. Disavowing youthful decadence with the wisdom of experience, Lanegan’s weary delivery contrasts with the driving tempo and industrial power. It’s a toe-tapping surge, and one of the singer’s catchiest songs.
The album’s two best songs arrive two-thirds of the way in. What makes them both so remarkable is how they prove Lanegan remains capable of exploring new paths and subverting his style’s conventions. The first, “Emperor”, is built around a jaunty, off-kilter marching rhythm. Somewhat reminiscent of carnival music with Johannes’s Farfisa organ and Homme’s ghostly falsetto cooing in the background, it’s one of the most distinctive numbers in his oeuvre. Successor “Goodbye to Beauty” is a pathos-laden torch song. Before the vocals come in, it sprawls out with sparse acoustic plucking and contrasting piano chords that sink you down only to briefly raise you up. It seems to pan across a desolate landscape and is a true showstopper, letting you know this is something apart from the pack. When the vocals arrive, it lands on a wholly different emotional plane. In the verses, Lanegan’s croon is dusty and low, reaching higher on the chorus while drifting away. A melancholy ode, it’s ambiguous whether the narrator is observing a funeral for a loved one or the wedding of a former paramour, but that uncertainty only makes it more powerful.
The only real forgettable song is the penultimate “First Day of Winter”. It’s too plodding and struggles to hold your attention. Something about it almost feels like an unreleased track from 2012’s Blues Funeral. Thankfully, the record ends on a high note with closer “Old Swan”. The programmed percussion is mixed comparatively low but is nonetheless propulsive. Lanegan has scarcely been sweeter or more lyrically direct in his devotion to attaining liberation, but he does it with genuineness here. With its optimism and sense of accomplishment, it has the feel of a getaway song, of getting in a car with the one you love and just taking off with no destination in mind, the distant guitar flashes like passing headlights.
Gargoyle is as confident and assured as anything Lanegan has released. It stands up alongside his best work and pushes his method in a few new directions, without trying to break from the paradigm. It’s no crossover work that’ll likely garner him new fans, but it finds him cemented in his legacy.