Saturnalia – Pitchfork
While so many other 1990s alt-rock acts are rehashing their hits on nostalgia package tours, Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan have pushed ahead musically without having to rely heavily on past triumphs. Dulli continues his surprisingly tenacious Twilight Singers project, and Lanegan has released two fairly well-received solo albums, although he’s better known for collaborating with Isobel Campbell and Queens of the Stone Age.
Dulli and Lanegan have spent most of the 2000s collaborating flirtatiously, touring and recording together– check out Lanegan’s vocals on the Twilight Singers’ cover of “Flashback” by Fat Freddy’s Drop, from their 2006 EP A Stitch in Time– but Saturnalia is their long-in-the-works debut as the Gutter Twins, a partnership that Dulli describes as “the Satanic Everly Brothers.” The “Satanic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” might be a little more apt: The album finds them bursting forth from their studio, guns blazing but no clean getaway in sight. Musically, Saturnalia, named after the Roman festival where slaves and masters switch roles, is a concentrated dose of their usual badassery, never straying too far from the territory Dulli explored on the last three Singers albums, and even includes many of the same collaborators: wayward troubadour Joseph Arthur, Mathias Schneeberger, Dave Rosser, Martina Topley-Bird, Queen of the Stone Age Troy Van Leeuwen, and New Orleans organist Quintron (who illuminates “Seven Stories Underground”).
The project’s sense of familiarity, however, is not a negative. “Each to Each” revisits the eerie electronica of the Twilight Singers’ debut, a welcome compliment to Dulli’s vocals courtesy of guitarist Jeff Klein and synth player Natasha Schneider. With its odd chorale intro and a string arrangement that shifts chords tectonically, “Idle Hands” builds to a chorus that could scale a skyscraper. Scavenging the gutter, though, Dulli and Lanegan come across some new flourishes. Discordant strings add tension to opener “The Stations”, which marches along at a midtempo before Schneeberger’s churchly organ raises it aloft. Before the Twins can build to the expected finale, the song simply fades out, redemption thwarted. “God’s Children” settles into a Whigsy blaxpoitation mood before drummer Greg Wieczorek hammers out a soaring chorus. “Who Will Lead Us?” is part folk and part gospel, so subdued that the tension never releases but bubbles into “Seven Stories Underground”.
With a billion cigarettes between them, the Twins are well matched vocally: Lanegan sings like he’s rising from the dead, Dulli like he’s falling from grace. Together, they can make a line like “We’re gonna have some fun” sound utterly sinister, which lends these lecherously slow burners their peculiar gravity. Lanegan sings “All Misery / Flowers” like a Tom Waits song, his vocal delivery tripping against the song’s rhythms as he conjures junkie afflictions: “Little girls might twitch at the way I itch, but the way I burn, it’s a son of a bitch.” Dulli closes the album with “Front Street”, which begins, somewhat morbidly, with the chirping of birds. It’s no joke, but a chiaroscuro contrast with the song’s pitch subject. “People to use, lovers to break, handful of pills, no life to take,” he sings, flirting with the masochist lover/confidence man he perfected 15 years ago on Gentlemen and seemed to abandon with the Twilight Singers.
It’s no coincidence that Sub Pop is releasing Saturnalia: The label was home to both the Whigs and the Trees, as well as to Lanegan the solo artist. These songs plumb their persistent themes of sin and redemption, damnation and salvation, but in a way that sounds like they’re taking stock of their own long and undeniably tough careers, in which disappointment, death, and drug addiction are public record. As such, the album possesses a gruesome attraction for fans of both musicians, who will hear it as a bloodletting, as well as for newcomers, who may hear it as a violent shoot-out– Dulli and Lanegan against the world, their fates undecided. The Twins push each other to go darker and deeper, to bare more of their souls, so Saturnalia sounds heavier, bleaker, simultaneously more desperate and more content than anything either musician has done in years. As they both sing on “All Misery / Flowers, “I did all I did just to get through to heaven.” Dulli and Lanegan haven’t reached the Pearly Gates yet, but that’s our good fortune.
-Stephen M. Deusner