Mark Lanegan is best known for his rugged voice and doomed lyrics. His rustic voice has a thorny croon to it that one would imagine the Grim Reaper would have if he sang. On Lanegan’s new album, he pairs his unique instrument with a set of songs that look to pair his unique instrument with sounds that range from post punk, to western, to marginalized triphop. Naturally those don’t all sit well together.
While Lanegan’s work within other groups like Queens of the Stone Age, Screaming Trees, and the Gutter Twins, are brittle guitars and heavy drums, the work within his own band embraces an alternate tone that has worked great in the past (see “Ode to Sad Disco” on Blues Funeral) but is often times amiss on Phantom Radio. On “The Killing Season,” a thin drum loop, wandering synths, and a smattering of dated 90s production sounds places Lanegan in a backdrop that wouldn’t be out of place on John Mellencamp’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky record. It’s a “hip” sound for an era that is certainly not right now (and frankly wasn’t then either). Ditto for “Seventh Day” which sounds like it should be running over the end credits of The Fifth Element with its vaguely eastern sounds and hokey slow gliding beats. Lenegan fairs a little better on the material that one comes to expect from the singer – “I Am the Wolf” is a fluttering, western acoustic ballad, and “Judgment Time” is a harmonium led standstill which has a fittingly haunted feel, if not the most compelling tune. The reflective Willie Nelsen-meets-Johnny Cash track “The Wild People” is not embarrassing, but it’s also a snore, drifting along in a warm, familiar way that like much record, is inessential.
More so than anything, the thin instrumentation is the biggest problem on this album. Opener “Harvest Home” makes it work with a mid tempo post-punk groove and a pretty synth blanket, but there isn’t much afterward to make Phantom Radio compelling. The one song that shines wholly is the glowing wanderer “Torn Red Heart,” where Lanegan reaches into his gentler, upper register for a song that sounds like a cross between Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” and U2’s “Running to Stand Still.” On this track, the production is far more graceful than anything else on the album, which is frustrating since its such a hindrance to everything else. If only this track could have been the album’s focal point, as opposed to the flimsier, mid-tempo cruising tracks that make up the majority of Phantom Radio’s stable.