For his tenth solo album Gargoyle, Mark Lanegan builds upon the sonic territory of his last release, 2014’s Phantom Radio, with a collection of gothic pop rock peppered with healthy doses of European electronica. There is no trace of the grunge roots of the former Screaming Trees frontman, though the album does incorporate some of the folk and blues influences that have informed his solo work.
Gargoyle is as bleak, hazy, and unsettling as its name implies. The darkness is all encompassing, the music grim, the lyrics macabre. Lanegan sings of familiar themes of depression, sin, and mortality in his distinctive voice like cracked, dusty leather.
The menacing “Death’s Head Tattoo” – which references a moth commonly associated with bad omens and The Silence of the Lambs – kicks off the album with post-apocalyptic imagery of California as an abandoned wasteland. “If I cry for you, baby, your death’s head tattoo made me. Pray for the last one standing holding a loaded gun,” Lanegan sings amid a dark industrial sound.
“Blue Blue Sea” contrasts slow, foreboding organ with a jittery synthesizer lick as Lanegan conjures visions of gargoyles, a chained Lucifer, and crucifixion. Like much of the album, it is as much about setting a mood as about telling a particular story.
“I’m the target and the gun,” Lanegan sings in “Drunk on Destruction,” the distorted power chords in the chorus giving the album its biggest dose of traditional alt rock. In “First Day of Winter,” a shimmering New Wave ballad with a foreboding murkiness, Lanegan again sings of desolation. “There’s nothing left in this town,” he sings. “Just a ghost that drags me around in sorrow.”
Lanegan lets the clouds part slightly for Gargyle’s most upbeat track, “Emperor.” Longtime collaborator Josh Homme’s (Queens of the Stone Age) falsetto harmonizes well with Lanegan’s gravelly baritone. Even so, the lyrics are as brooding as ever. “On water still, my boat violently shaking,” Lanegan sings over a toe-tapping chord progression.
Like much of Lanegan’s catalog, Gargoyle is a bit monochromatic. The opening track sets a tone that permeates the entire album, with few deviations in theme, tempo, structure, or mood. Lanegan’s weary growl adds extra bite but is lacking in range. Any such deviations, however, may have spoiled what the album attempts to create. Gargoyle is a confident gothic tableau of spiritual and emotional desolation set against an urban industrial backdrop that creates an ambiance as thick as Lanegan’s husky vocals.