Call it Lanegan-noir, a subgenre that shifts between crunching driving anthems and stark anti-hymns.
Mark Lanegan is a goddamn national treasure, and it seems odd that such an elder statesman of rock, who hasn’t released a bad album since 1984, isn’t met with anything less than rapturous applause. Yet even after a brilliant and lovingly curated look back at his career with Has God Seen My Shadow? in 2014, Lanegan seems to earn no more than polite claps and head nods.
Lanegan’s storied croak sounds like a crate full of whiskey gaining sentience. Even when he was the long-haired, lanky kid in the Screaming Trees, he came off like a man with centuries of hard time behind him. But both Has God Seen My Shadow? and his newest release Gargoyle reveal what is perhaps Lanegan’s most important and most overlooked trait: his flexibility.
Gargoyle doesn’t seem too concerned with genre. Lanegan stirs together post-punk, synth-pop, desert rock and gospel music into something not just coherent but moving. Call it Lanegan-noir, a subgenre that shifts between crunching driving anthems and stark anti-hymns.
In the former category are tracks like the opener and others which work off rusty percussion and stabbing guitars. “Emperor” is a bit on the goofy “Monster Mash” side, but with Lanegan, why not bring out the spooks? It’s also a good reminder that Lanegan, at some point, needs to voice a Saturday morning cartoon villain. The appropriately buzzing “Beehive” is another fast car, no speed limit ready track, something that Lanegan’s buddies at Queens of the Stone Age wouldn’t mind covering. But its lyrics are some of Lanegan’s finest, a balancing act of anxiety as both a killer and a motivator: “Press my body against the window in an electric storm,” he croons, seeking a dangerous thrill.
Like artists of all stripes, his worries and fears inspire him, and also doing a number on his mental health. “Beehive” doesn’t romanticize fight or flight, instead turning even handed and surprisingly rational. “Nocturne” is the most forward thinking of the lot, with Lanegan flipping between one of his most bass-heavy vocal performances and more arena-level singing. The backing music is appropriately steely, and Lanegan delivers a mournful monologue. “God knows I’m missing you/ Somewhere there’s two trains colliding…” he croaks, bringing up the crashing imagery of “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” as he hopes to disappear with his loved one rather than deal with the darkness of the world.
Slower songs further explore that apocalyptic imagery smattered with pin-lights of hope. “Blue Blue Sea” has Lanegan asking “Who put Lucifer in harness?” over an undulating synth line. “Sister” expands the haunted church aesthetic with reversed and collapsing pianos affirming a choral vocal delivery on the chorus. “Goodbye to Beauty” isn’t just the best of the lower tempo songs, but one of the most gorgeous songs Lanegan has ever made. It sounds like a lost country classic, landing somewhere between the best of Ryan Adams’ sadsackery and Willie Nelson’s storytelling. Lanegan sounds effortlessly sad above steel guitar and muted percussion. It’s a story about moving on, whether from a physical or emotional change, and Lanegan balances the bitter to sweet ratio perfectly. He’s thankful as he belts out the chorus, but a tear is held in his eye. Lanegan better have a full country record out within the next few years. After all, that’s what artistic treasures do: be versatile while still being instantly recognizable.