Wayward women, mistakes, something "lonelier than death," feasts, and the obligatory famines work their way through the latest album from Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood, and thematically gel in grand tradition with the music.
"Step lightly through the garden/Watch for the serpent there/Until I have you again" sings Mark Lanegan in "Upon Doing Something Wrong," an acoustic guitar track that highlights an album of low-key, almost sorrowfully atmospheric songs about loss, the hope of redemption, and the ever fruitful theme of the love between a man and a woman and all that it encompasses. Simple love songs about missing your girl and accidentally pissing her off are way beneath the powerful atmospherics of Lanegan's voice and Garwood's sparse yet huge guitar sounds though. No. Something else is going on here, besides great music making of course. It took me a while to figure it out, but I began to, rather by accident, when examining the album's haunting artwork.
In these days of MP3 streaming, where you often never even see the artwork to the album to which you are listening, album artwork is almost an afterthought and therefore sadly often irrelevant. With most pop acts, album artwork is, at its worst, meant to titillate (see Nicki Minaj's latest album cover), or, even more sadly, simply fail to be bothered with. With Animals has a unique cover. It appears to be inhabited by vaguely animal-like characters, but is pretty indecipherable. Even though I looked, I couldn't find out who the artist was or what was said artist's intent with the imagery. Something was going on here that tied to the album's overall theme though. I couldn't figure it out. So I put it on a mental shelf.
After listening to the album several times, and becoming just as enthralled with its sound as I was with Lanegan and Garwood's previous offering's (Black Pudding) sound, I started noticing the recurrence of a very specific type of imagery. There were "serpents" in gardens, feasts and famines, infidels, ghosts, seraphim, "nighttime" children and people, alchemy, "dark harmony," calls for redemption and love, "heaven's rain," blue fire, apocalyptic imagery, love, and (speaking of serpents) even Lucifer got a mention by name. All of these are, obviously, Biblical images. Then it hit me. The album art reminded me of a distorted rendition of a Gustave Dore woodcutting. Dore produced famous wood cuttings for editions of Dante's Divine Comedy and John Milton's Paradise Lost, among others, in the 19th Century. Going back for yet another (welcome) listen, I discovered that Lanegan's lyrics most closely identify with Milton's themes.
What better theme could there be than the Loss of Paradise and the conflicts that arose (even before the fated fall) between the first mythical man and woman for a moody, atmospheric blues inspired album by a singer with a voice that evokes everything from Ole Scratch himself to the most world weary, yet still full of piss and vinegar, raconteur? Accompanied by some of the most moody yet powerful guitar playing by one of the most understated, and therefore most infectious sounding, guitarists, Lanegan's lyrics soothe and sear like nothing else.
Now, it's entirely possible that I'm just engaging with the artists here to help create a highly personal reading of the album's theme by sussing out all these little Miltonic tidbits, and Lanegan and Garwood were totally off on something else thematically. I don't think they'd find my musings offensive to their intent at making thought provoking and interesting music. There's plenty to support my ideas here, the least of which is the lyrical imagery listed above. There is a narrative to the songs as well. Lanegan sings in succession about events that could symbolically and metaphorically be relating the tale of the first transgression. Early on in the album, indeed in the first track "Save Me," Lanegan sings out for redemption and addresses the fallen state of mankind who are now "midnight children" (metaphorically "fallen") who sing "crazed harmonies." It's almost like Adam himself is imploring his fellow fallen men and women to ask for redemption, but ends up instead asking them to "love me" instead of the Lord. The singer is lost and he knows it. Later on, he reinforces that even in his now "shadow life" he still "loves you baby." He's fallen, or knows he's about to be fallen (perhaps the forbidden apple is still unbitten by our Adam), but he will still love his Eve as evidenced by the lyrics in "My Shadow Life." In "Upon Doing Something Wrong" he warns his Eve about the "serpent in the garden." The tone of the song is much less dark and much more inviting and harmonious. Perhaps this is a moment reflected upon by our Adam (Lanegan) that occurred before Eve tasted the apple, in a happier time. On "Lonesome Infidel" Lanegan actually invokes "oh, Lord" while bewailing his current situation, one where he's facing an "executioner in league with Lucifer." The backward played guitar notes are even evocative of a perverted church organ refrain. It's the second instance of backwards played guitar notes ("Feast to Famine"). Backwards music is a long recognized sign of sinister events being afoot or a malign influence.
Anyway, you get the picture. There's enough imagery here to make a pretty convincing case that With Animals is driven by the most bluesy of bluesy themes: the fallen woman who you just can't resist or leave or the woman who done you wrong, which are Biblical themes when you really think about it. It's classic blues material, and Lanegan's voice and Garwood's haunting blues riffs and rhythms tell this time hardened and oft retold story (of doomed love of Biblical proportions) smartly and intelligently. More importantly though, they tell it in a new way that is intended to be artistic and invite the listener to join in creating the art with the artist. Lanegan and Garwood obviously have the reputation and talent to be mega stars (and Lanegan in particular once flirted with such status), but instead choose to make artistic recordings that pull from the deep traditions that form the foundations of blues, and mix them with big existential themes. How much bigger can you get than the story of Adam and Eve, however metaphorically referenced?
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood's With Animals is the result of a collaboration made in heaven, (no puns intended), even if they find their greatest inspirations down here with the human animals and all their passions and flaws.