Mark Lanegan is the kind of musician whose talent inspires devotion and obsession in the many, many fans who follow him faithfully through his nomadic, prolific catalogue. You may know him from his solo material, or maybe you know him from his days with grunge nearly men Screaming Trees. He is also a serial collaborator, often working with the vastly eclectic likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Duke Garwood, Greg Dulli and even Moby. Put simply, if you don't have an album in your collection that hasn't been touched by the hand of Lanegan, you don't have many albums in your collection.
As far as his solo work is concerned, Lanegan seems to have entered into a gloriously productive phase in his career. After releasing 'Bubblegum' in 2004, Mark Lanegan went off the radar until 2012's incredible 'Blues Funeral'. Since then, he has put out a Best Of compilation, a covers album, an EP of originals (which comes packaged with the deluxe edition of 'Phantom Radio') and a collaborative LP with Duke Garwood. 'Phantom Radio' keeps Lanegan's purple patch on the glorious streak it's on. This is a musician who finally seems to be having a bit of fun and 'Phantom Radio' shows Mark Lanegan giving his legs one hell of a stretch.
'Phantom Radio' begins with the dusty desert vibes of 'Harvest Home', a song which could be an absolutely monster hit given the right push. All the Lanegan hallmarks are there: the distinctive, whisky soaked vocal, a twanging guitar line and lyrics about ghosts, the devil and fire. These tropes are mixed with no sounds for a Lanegan song, which are what really push this forward; big programmed drums jostle for space in the mix with icy synth lines, giving almost a pop edge to proceedings. It is thrilling to hear Mark Lanegan move away from his usual country and blues fare and truly mix it up a bit.
On 'Blues Funeral', Lanegan hinted that he wanted to experiment with synths on tracks like 'Ode to Sad Disco', but on 'Phantom Radio', his boot gets wedged firmly in the door. You get 'Waltzing In Blue', another song that mixes more traditional Lanegan dirge with the synths; you get the cinematic, funky and unusual vibes of 'The Killing Season' and you get 'Floor of the Ocean' which would not have been out of place on a Moby album. One of the album's absolute highlights is 'Torn Red Heart', the most saccharine moment of Lanegan's career. This is a desert-noir interpretation of classic minimalist pop, with a blissed out 1960s vibe and even a couple of la-las thrown in for good measure.
That isn't to say there aren't any more standard Lanegan tracks on offer here though. 'I am the Wolf' is a much more bluesy, intimate piece with intricate finger picked acoustic guitar lines and 'Seventh Day' could almost be a throwback to some of the funkier moments on 2004's 'Bubblegum'.
All of this is not to say that there are no missteps here. 'Judgement Time', though not necessarily a bad song, kills the momentum and flow of the album before it gets going by being a slow, acoustic trudge of a song at only track two, and the album does tale off a bit into mid-paced apathy towards the end before being saved by the epic 'Death Trip To Tulsa'.
We should, however, be praising artists like Mark Lanegan who, so deep into their careers, are still making inventive and interesting new music and still experimenting with new sounds. On the whole, 'Phantom Radio' is a triumph and one of the best Mark Lanegan solo efforts; if not one of the best of those many, many albums he has appeared on. And to be honest, it sounds like grumpy old Mark is having a hell of a time here.
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'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)' arrives in April.
The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.