Saturnalia – The New York Sun
By Brett McCabe
What becomes of the beloved artist who achieves critical but never commercial success? It’s a question that feels especially prescient as the fêted artists of the 1990s American underground ease into middle age along with their fans. The front men from three seminal alternative rock bands have new albums out today. The Afghan Whigs’s Greg Dulli and the Screaming Trees’s Mark Lanegan team up for their first full-length collaborative project as the Gutter Twins in “Saturnalia” (Sub Pop), and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus releases his fourth solo album, “Real Emotional Trash” (Matador), with his current band, the Jicks. Neither release is a radical departure from its creator’s résumé, but both deliver the proverbial goods by playing to their respective strengths — albeit in different ways.
Messrs. Dulli and Lanegan hew pretty closely to their familiar forms with “Saturnalia.” With the Screaming Trees, Mr. Lanegan’s coarse, deep voice dusted a haunting presence over the band’s swirling heavy rock. The Trees’s 1989 album “Buzz Factory” provided an early template for the riff-laden development of Seattle’s so-called grunge sound in the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dulli spent the late ’80s and early ’90s fronting the Afghan Whigs, using his own rough-hewn vocals to cut an indelible path through grunge with his unabashed love for the carnal and redemptive possibilities of soul music. Neither musician is ignorant of the trials and tribulations of intoxicants, nor of the seedy stories and situations that such pastimes usually produce. “Saturnalia” is the dark, brooding, libidinous, and cathartic document of these two shadow-lurkers joining forces.
The lead single, “Idle Hands,” bluntly captures the mood in a classic-rock mold. Surging, anxious guitars and a driving beat underscore the song’s matter-of-fact descent into brusque resignation. “My eyes have seen, they have been shown / This is an occupation to stand alone,” Mr. Lanegan drones in the second verse with a deep, smoke-stained delivery that sounds like he’s about two minutes from the grave. Mr. Dulli’s slightly less spectral voice joins in for the bridge, and the pair harmonizes like two commiserating survivors: “I’ll suffer you, you suffer me / We are the devil’s plaything into this reckoning.”
The rocking desperation of “Idle Hands” is about as rousing as “Saturnalia” gets, but it’s also as cheery as the album gets. The other 11 tracks hover in a more down-tempo, noisy, and reflective musical netherworld, with songs exploring man’s darker impulses. The entire album feels like a meditative sound track to those lonely hours between the bar closing and the sun coming up, and Messrs. Dulli and Lanegan sound like men who recently spent that period in the company of forgiving best friends while trying to hide from enabling opportunists.
“Saturnalia” is an album about the search for earthbound redemption. The lead track, “The Stations,” sketches this limbo out of an ethereal guitar line and a clamorous drum kick, over which Mr. Dulli gets almost William Blake-visionary when he scream-sings: “I hear the Rapture’s coming / they say he’ll be here soon / Right now there’s demons crawling all around my room / They say he lives within us / they say for me he died / And now I hear his footsteps almost every night.”
And thus the album’s tone is set. Upon further listening, Messrs. Dulli and Lanegan confront an impending judgment (the haunting “All Misery/Flowers”), explore the sins of the flesh (the almost ambient “The Body”), give in to temptation (the string-powered “Circle the Fringes”), and wait around to see what happens next (the percolating electronic beats of “Each and Each”). “Saturnalia” is a thematically dark and emotionally heavy album, but it’s tempered by a muscular beauty that marks both of its creators’ best moments in the past.