By Chris Moore:
RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
For over a decade, Brian Burton has made it his business to strike up some of the most unique alliances between artists and genres, and the results have, to a surprising degree, been both fascinating and entertaining.
Anyone who knows music knows that one or the other is fairly simple to achieve; any project able to be described by both modifiers is impressive.
You will likely have heard of Burton by his nom de plume Danger Mouse — or perhaps, more anonymously, as one half of Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, or Danger Doom. If you are one of the few who read liner notes, then you would also recognize him as the producer of recent albums by Beck and the Black Keys, among others.
If you are reading about him here for the first time, then you will most certainly recognize him as an artist who revels in the blending of elements that otherwise wouldn’t overlap under normal circumstances. It is his affinity for such ventures, an attribute that would, in the hands of most artists, result in a disconnected collection of tracks, that drives and distinguishes Dark Night of the Soul.
First, it should be established that this record is defined by the “Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present” formula (i.e. Danger Mouse on synthesizers and other instruments and Sparklehorse’s multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous on guitars among other analog instruments). Each track was co-written with a guest artist or band, who then sang the lead vocals. Film maker David Lynch, who collaborated on the album as a whole, is the only guest to sing lead on more than one track.
By all rights, this should be an effort incapable of cohesion.
Instead, Dark Night of the Soul hinges not on the strength of individual tracks, but rather on the effect achieved by the whole.
The record is a multi-faceted exploration of the darker sides of humanity and the human psyche. The first line of the opener, “Revenge,” refers to pain as “a matter of sensation,” the singer directing his lyrics at someone who has “ways of avoiding it all.” Several tracks later, “Pain” explores the flip side from the perspective of a man — voiced fittingly by Iggy Pop — who “must always feel pain.”
Other songs cover similar ground, notably the latter half’s “Daddy’s Gone” that serves as a thematically relevant flip-side of sorts to “Little Girl,” which came six tracks earlier. “Insane Lullaby” asserts that “A good life will never be enough,” echoing and extending the sentiment begun earlier in “Angel’s Harp” that “Though you might be walkin’ tall, everybody got a lot to grow.” Both of these aforementioned track titles draw on the language of soothing religious and children’s music, diction that is belied by the gloomy content of the lyrics.
The final pairing of the album, “Grim Augury” and the title track (tracks 12 and 13), present the final descent into darkness. Vic Chesnutt’s voicing of the former is additionally haunting following the news of his suicide shortly after recording the song. His request, then, that his “sweetie” not sing “this sad song, grim augury” seems a moot point, being as it’s an augury after-the-fact for listeners who waited until the recent official release of the album following EMI’s inter-label nonsense.
Still, Chesnutt’s song is perhaps the most dramatic track on the album, lyrically speaking, as he sings: “I was peering in through the picture window. It was a heart-warming tableau like a Norman Rockwell painting until I zoomed in.” The haunting scene which he sees is a bloody one and is imbued with portents of violence; up to this point there had only been emotional turmoil and less physical notions of pain. Even “Just War” could easily be argued in a metaphoric rather than literal sense.
With Chesnutt, there is no question about the “horrible dream” and the true darkness expressed by the track.
In March of this year, four months before the official release of Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous took his own life as well, reportedly by a rifle blast to the chest. As much as one might accept on an intellectual level that music should be taken for what it is, separate from context, it is difficult to separate the tragic deaths of Linkous and Chesnutt from their performances on this haunting release. (They are, after all, dedicated to the memory of the two artists.)
It is difficult not to listen to these recordings with a renewed sense of their depth. To be sure, they are not all depressing, but the closest the album comes to upbeat is the reckless tone of “Everytime I’m With You” or the melancholy of “Jaykub.”
So, in the end, you get what you’re promised from the outset, from the title. It is a bit more serious, a bit more real than most music is able to manage, and it comes at a high price.