Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Ballad of the Broken Seas
’m going to spare you the usual adulation bestowed on such duet albums, not only because they’re dated but also because they’re often incorrect. The “beauty and the beast” tag is employed whenever the set-up seems to be that of beautiful extremes, as though clay and candy decided that they could work out their differences and meet at a palatable midpoint. To do so with Ballad of the Broken Seas masks the real effect with hackneyed expectation, devaluing the combination here as well as the strengths of the individual musicians. The paramount mistake to be made is considering Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell opposites.
Lanegan’s performance here is a distillation of his prodigious and pliable solo catalogue, one often suffocated by the more public association he has with Screaming Trees and Queens of The Stone Age. Quite a few would consider him a calorie-free Tom Waits, yet Lanegan’s voice is made of differently textured gravel that can at times betray and conjure more complex meaning. His performance on “The False Husband” sees him playing Campbell’s ghostly counterpoint, his inquiries of “Where’ve you been my darlin? / Where’ve you been my friend?” giving his voice a solemn, almost weightless influence. His simple, almost childlike effort on “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?” combined with Campbell’s is in no way orthogonal and both emerge equally diaphanous.
But a major break with the “beauty and the beast” narrative is Isobel Campbell, whose only similarity to that tale is being a member of the Glaswegian guild possessing half of the same name—Belle and Sebastian. Campbell wrote almost all of the songs contained here and it’s her sense of orchestration that elevates quite a few of the pieces from middling, slightly disengaging selections to emotionally resonant and aurally potent wonders like “Revolver” and “Black Mountain.” It’s the strings that pretty much save the instrumental “It’s Hard to Kill a Bad Thing” and the poppy “Honey Child What Can I Do?” as well as being indicative of the extent to which Campbell took the reins of the album in general.
More broadly, however, Lanegan and Campbell’s combination highlights, at the very least, the subtleties of such hastily categorized combinations. Who knew that Smokey Hormel and Miho Hatori would make a bossa nova album dedicated to Brazilian composer Baden Powell or that Beth Gibbons and Paul Webb would come together to make more than just a Dummy 2.0? While these examples may be musically dissimilar from Lanegan and Campbell, their explanatory function remains the same: such combinations often come about because the musicians share an interest beyond their popular realms.
Ballad of the Broken Seas isn’t Lanegan and Campbell combining like a Voltron of the embittered, lachrymal traveler and the timid, wistful chanteuse, but an attempt to make material a vision of mutual founding. That’s why there’s no cacophony and very little white noise: the finished product is essentially of a common mind. The album is also an exhibition of both artist’s underestimated flexibility in numerous respects, exemplified by Lanegan’s supple rendition of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” and Campbell’s supportive role throughout. The duo doesn’t set out to make you think oil and water can actually be appetizing, but that a more toothsome result emerges from both parties being more alike than originally assumed.