Somehow Mark Lanegan slips under the radar of many. He’s had lengthy solo career and involvement in several important rock bands including Queens of the Stone Age and Screaming Trees, but also his rough-as-sandpaper baritone vocals are unlike anything. The formula needs a slight shake up to nudge him into wider recognition.
Phantom Radio does this by taking on the heavy experimentation of electronics and synthesisers heard in the EP released earlier this year, No Bells On Sunday. While these elements are subtler on this release, they’re present enough to see that his music has evolved without leaving anything from his pre-determined style behind. This is immediately noticeable in opener ‘Harvest Home’, a good indicator for the overall sound of the album. The punchy electronic bass drum and the post-punk inspired synthesisers meld well with the guitars and Lanegan’s gravel-rough vocals that we expect.
It’s when the songs allow each element of the music to have an equal footing that it come together as a more whole and satisfying listening experience, which is achieved by Alain Joahannes’ intricate production. ‘Floor of the Ocean’ is an excellent example of Lanegan taking his extensive experimentation of his recent EP and mixing it evenly with his signature style. The floaty electronic parts, the synths and the minimal guitar passage that tip-toes along delicately, holds Lanegan’s powerful vocals aloft.
At other times the instrumentations take a back seat to allow for the gloomy vocals and heavily pessimistic, image-heavy lyrics to become a focal point. Such is the case with the doom-laced ideas in ‘Judgement Day’, as he sings “I saw the feet of pilgrims bleeding/I saw whole cities drowning.” While the lyrics and vocals here are strong, the song lacks the musical density of some of the other songs on the album.
This doesn’t hold true in ‘I am the Wolf’ with equally cynical lines such as “all I’ve learnt is that poison sting”, which has a solid instrumental foundation for Lanegan’s prominent vocals. Or the bleak picture of love painted in ‘Torn Red Heart’ as he sings “it’s delirium, it’s a child-like dream and it fades away, it’s illusion”, nurtured words that Lanegan eases out with such care and feeling.
The ideas previously experimented with on No Bells on Sunday haven’t been taken as far here, which is to be applauded as it makes these new elements seem more comfortable and natural in his music. The way the beauty of the soft, dreamy electronics and synths contrast against his rough voice and doomed lyrics make sense, putting the final cog into Lanegan’s music. Phantom Radio is his most complete solo effort to date.