Various Artists, "Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul"
A year and a half ago I tacked up the new poster for this album. Eagerly anticipated, "Dark Night of the Soul" was billed like a movie, no doubt because of director David Lynch's involvement, a rumored (since 2006) and finally realized collection of songs designed by go-to collaborator and sound swami Danger Mouse, a k a Brian Burton (half of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, producer of Gorillaz and Beck) and Sparklehorse, a k a Mark Linkous. They're two revered rock producers with totally different styles; when they realized they each had a batch of songs they didn't know what to do with, they opened the microphone to a throng of guest vocalists.
But, alas, the poster curled and came down before the album showed up, stuck in a battle between Burton and EMI. A corresponding book of Lynch's photographs, inspired by the songs, appeared and included a blank CD and a note: "For legal reasons, the enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will." (Translation: "We hear there are some leaked copies on the Internet. Which someone could download and burn. Ahem." Early this year, Linkous killed himself.
Allegedly all legal disputes have been resolved, and the CD may actually show up on Tuesday as scheduled.
The crescendoed anticipation lends the work considerable intrigue and excitement, and while it's definitely an interesting and occasionally arresting set, the whole disc succeeds more in creating a particular mood than in delivering anything decisively urgent.
Which makes Lynch's cursory presence all the more perfect. Like one of his movies, "Dark Night of the Soul" is moving and creepy and occasionally sinister but in the end lacking of many coherent reasons to be. Trying to figure it out only deflates the experience. It's best to let the mysteries be. Your subconscious likely will fill in the gaps later tonight.
The CD couldn't be better sequenced, opening with "Revenge" featuring the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne sounding wonderfully hoarse and world-weary as he ponders, in exactly the kind of moment evoked by the album's title, what revenge might do to a man. "I can't make myself destroy upon command," he croaks over trademark Lips fluttering keys and chimes, then adding, "You can't hide what you intend," as synths climb up the scale, sounding exactly like all those moments of false hope and comfort in episodes of Lynch's "Twin Peaks."
"Revenge" by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with Wayne Coyne
The contemplative, late-night tone thus set, others follow suit in their own ways. Some don't quite nail it, delivering simply sleepy songs ("Jaykub" with Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, for instance), but some stretch out in the heavy-lidded darkness. Burton and Linkous said these were songs that didn't really fit their own vocal ranges, but they seem to challenge the guests, too, in refreshing ways. Julian Casablancas enters "Little Girl" with the usual distorted vocals and jangly guitar, but he sings -- OK, almost croons -- with a previously unheard dreaminess, telling a tale that's wickedly depricating (of himself and the "tortured little girl"): "I'm ignorant as sh-- / not here to preach, man ... I'm just a simple guy who talks when you put a microphone in front of him." Iggy Pop evens out and calms down, too, singing the dirge "Pain" with a smoothness that makes him sound like Peter Murphy -- with vibrato, no less. Suzanne Vega (she shows up in curious places, doesn't she?) sings in a register a step above her usual dry nonchalance, adding an angelic eeriness to a description of "The Man Who Played God."
Even Lynch "sings," poking his way through a tone poem, "Star Eyes," and closing the album by barking the staticky title track like a troll in a distant corner, all doom and unsettling portent. It winds up as a soundtrack to ... something, a whole more interesting than its parts and one that likely will age well. It's a grower, not a shower.
"Little Girl" by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with Julian Casablancas