Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle & Sebastian) and Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) are walking a difficult path. The music on this path depends not only on literary narratives about love and loss, but also on richly textured instrumental accompaniment. The best artists in this style -- people like Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen -- create simple music that reveals deeper complexities with each consecutive listen.
Lanegan's baritone is bound to the earth, while Campbell provides the oxygen. Lanegan's vocals in the opener, "Deus Ibi Est," bring to mind the somber storytelling of Cave. Campbell takes the lead on the second song, "Black Mountain," and despite the old indie-rock trick of drowning mediocre vocals in layers of echoing reverb, her warm voice adds melancholy to an already dark track. The next six songs continue in this vein, each an exploration of some lonely or troubling facet of the human condition. None of them are perfect, but they all flirt with greatness.
Sometimes we need contrast to appreciate beauty. On Ballad of the Broken Seas, that contrast comes on tracks 9 and 10. "It's Hard to Kill a Bad Thing" is almost entirely instrumental, and reeks of a bunch of wannabe musicians sitting around a campfire, feeling each other's vibe, man. "Honey Child What Can I Do?" has nothing to do with the rest of the music, and sounds more like The Carpenters than Cash or Cave. (Perhaps coincidentally, these are the only two songs that were written either by or with other songwriters. Not counting, of course, the absolutely stellar rendition of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man.")
Campbell and Lanegan are walking a difficult path with this album. Even if they stumble on a few occasions, they walk the path with grace and dignity.
The musicians understand the music, and they do it justice. "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?" is a deceptively simple duet that not only portrays two flawed and independent people reaching out to one another, but also demonstrates how perfectly these two imperfect voices fit together. "Revolver" might be the most haunting song on an album of haunting songs. Campbell's lyrics are occasionally perfect, but often fall short; I cannot imagine Cohen or Cave ever singing, "I looked to you and saw my desire, went from the frying pan into the fire," when singing about a man who awaits a permanent escape from the life and love he cannot leave.
A run-down motel room is the right setting, but these pictures don't capture the spirit of the album. It looks as if photographer Autumn De Wilde had a photo shoot scheduled, and everyone drove around until they found a motel where they could snap some pictures and then go have lunch. There is no despair in these photos. The only one that even begins to succeed in context is the splintered door that sits in the CD tray. The rest of it is completely flat. Oh, and it was a bad decision to leave out the lyrics.
Listen if you like: American Recordings-era Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Leonard Cohen, Jessye Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter
If it were food, it'd be: Two slices of day-old pizza, eaten out of a box that sits on the passenger seat while you drive alone at night on a dark road that leads to the last place you should possibly be going.