Mark Lanegan, of grunge-era Screaming Trees fame, possesses a voice that has been described as “scratchy as a three-day beard yet as supple and pliable as moccasin leather.” He deploys his distinctive baritone on Phantom Radio like an unnervingly soft-spoken tent revival preacher sermonizing on the end of days. On the surface, this should appeal to a black t-shirt clad curmudgeon like myself, but this album feels like a single interminable interpretation of Johnny Cash doing Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. As I write this review, I wonder how many synonyms for “dark” I’m going to put into service.
Lanegan’s voice is impressive, an American Ian McCulloch, though simultaneously a little gothy and a little overproduced. There’s nothing properly wrong with this album, but there’s definitely something missing. The song titles themselves all seem to reference a grim Americana, like Lanegan only began working on this album after finishing HBO’s True Detective series. People are probably going to like this album, but I found it suffering from acute case of anemia.
Pseudo-Spanish guitars lilt over lyrics like “I’ve been dyin’ since the day that I was born” on tracks with titles like “I Am the Wolf” and “Death Trip to Tulsa”. I’m all in favour of firing away with unabashed honesty, but Phantom Radio feels composed of clichés repackaged and shoehorned into the structure of homage. In fact, it wavers close to wholesale recapitulation of a bygone era. The synths and basslines intentionally harken to early New Order, and Lanegan’s profound contralto cannot help but recall Echo and the Bunnymen, but the music lacks the maudlin authenticity of the grimmer post-punk era. The more grimily boisterous Lanegan of Screaming Trees may have been bound to his long haired grungy honesty, but at least I didn’t question his authenticity.
On “The Killing Season”, we’re treated to something analogous to a Screaming Trees song, but the synthesizer feel like a non-sequitur. Lanegan croons “I smell the perfume of your blood,” over a track that is best described as a bit bloodless. Other songs like “Seventh Day” are little more than Sisters of Mercy tracks with muted drums. When I hear “I am the wolf without a pack,” on “I Am the Wolf”, I’m nearly convinced that we’ve veered into parody. This is coming from a man who a mere two decades ago was mentioned in the same breath as Kurt Cobain. Perhaps it is better to burn out than to fade away.
Despite all this, there are some enticing moments on this album, and even the insipid lyrics can’t entirely corrode Lanegan’s vocal charisma. I found myself genuinely enjoying “Torn Red Heart”, with its atmospheric synths and tenderly triumphant guitar peeking through the gloom like Bring on the Dancing Horses. Thank goodness for that; I nearly lost you there, Mark.