As the old saying goes, you learn something new every day, and that’s no less true with music. Take for example Mark Lanegan—erstwhile frontman for nineties grunge anti-stars, The Screaming Trees, some-time member of Queens of the Stone Age, solo artist, and collaborator with everyone from Isobel Campbell to Moby. He’s a remarkably prolific artist, and keeping up with all of his projects is no easy task. Still, as a long-time fan of the baritone-voiced vocalist, you’d have thought I would be aware of his fondness for Krautrock and eighties new wave, right? I mean, in hindsight, the signs were there on his last solo album, Blues Funeral, but perhaps the sounds of the bands he now cites as influences—Echo and the Bunnymen, Rain Parade and the Gun Club—hadn’t quite taken root in 2012. Or maybe I’m just going deaf.
No danger of not hearing those influences this time around though, as they’re brought very much to the fore on the excellent Phantom Radio. The album picks up on a similarly ambient vibe, with its electronic flourishes and synthetic drum loops (created using an app on Lanegan’s phone named FunkBox) over which Lanegan’s rich tones float, to mesmerising effect. First single, ‘Floor Of The Ocean’, propelled by an insistent, metronomic beat and swathes of moody guitar embodies this newish direction in superb style, while ‘The Killing Season’ features a synth interlude that sounds like something from a Jean Michel Jarre record. It’s all a far cry from the long, flailing locks and plaid shirts of vintage ’Trees (see the likes of ‘Dollar Bill’ and ‘Nearly Lost You’).
Still, there remain one or two similarities with the group with whom Lanegan cut his teeth. That voice, for one. It’s utterly unmistakeable, and equally capable of mining a rich vein of emotion—as on the stirring opening track, ‘Harvest Home’—as it is soothing the listener into uneasy sleep. ‘I Am The Wolf’, for example, co-written with guitarist Duke Garwood, is a haunting, acoustic number in which Lanegan declares “I am the wolf, without a pack/Banished so long ago, surviving on another’s kill.” Lyrically, the big man continues to explore some dark themes: despair, regret and loneliness all rear their ugly heads on Phantom Radio, and with tracks titled ‘The Killing Season’ and ‘Death Trip To Tulsa’… well, Pharrell Williams this ain’t.
Such is the mollifying manner in which Lanegan delivers his words, however, that the impact is never entirely gloomy, and you’ll find no better example of this than on ‘Torn Red Heart’—reputedly Lanegan’s own personal favourite of the album—which opens with the lines “You don’t love me/What’s to love anyway?” and ruminates sublimely on the pain of a broken heart. With this in mind, and as the nights draw in, Phantom Radio might just prove to be the perfect soundtrack those autumn evenings and the accompanying ponderings to which many of us are prone. Enjoy.