In 1996, Isobel Campbell’s former bandmate Stuart Murdoch sang “Nobody writes `em like they used to, so it may as well be me.” And though at the time, it was a novel and quirky thing to say, Campbell must have taken this to heart. No longer penning twee pop tunes, she has taken a decidedly more interesting, albeit old-fashioned path on her latest project, Ballad Of the Broken Seas. A collaboration with former Screaming Tree/Queen of the Stone Age Mark Lanegan, the album brings to mind the ’60s duets between Hazlewood and Sinatra or Gainsbourg and Birkin. Even the cover looks vintage, sharing a classic LP sleeve feel with recent albums by Ryan Adams and Nicolai Dunger.
Possibly because of this classic feel, a decidedly retro take on folky duets, Ballad sounds remarkably novel. Written primarily by Campbell, its dark and gloomy noir-folk tones sound more tailored to Mark Lanegan’s whiskey-coated throat, which is at the forefront of most of these tracks. His low grumble in war-torn narrative “Deus Ibi Est” paints a sinister portrait: “Impending storm rise up rise up, oh demons I shall shame you/down the barrel of my gun and one by one I’ll name you.” He then speaks of “drowning in whiskey and beer” on the title track, and confesses “I won’t say that I love you, I won’t say I’ll be true” on the sexual, yet cold “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me.”
Lanegan may be the one lending these songs an obvious, masculine, American quality, but its the subtle instrumentation that characterizes many of them as Campbell’s. Her cello weeps throughout beautiful compositions such as “Black Mountain,” transporting the listener from Lanegan’s dusty roads to her dimly lit, clouded moors. When Lanegan’s voice is removed in favor of Campbell’s breathy coo, as on “Mountain” or the brilliant “Saturday’s Gone,” the songs begin to float with an air of mysticism. Some have said that these songs pale in comparison to those where Lanegan takes over, but I beg to differ. In the few instances in which Campbell takes over, her songwriting prowess and true talent come spilling forth, giving us insight into the delicate melodies and breathtaking arrangements of which she’s capable.
Seeing as how both artists’ names are on the spine, however, it would be a grave mistake to not mention those songs in which their talents are best combined in more traditional `duet’ fashion. Their back and forth verse-trading on “The False Husband” is reminiscent of “Some Velvet Morning,” trading bouncy, ethereal passages with those immersed in gloom and reverb. Lanegan’s sole writing contribution, “Revolver,” finds both singers’ voices swirling about each other like billows of smoke toward a fan. And the cover of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” even rocks a little, Lanegan’s ragged moan barely concealing Campbell’s whispered backing.
Maybe this record will surprise fans of either artist. Maybe it won’t. It’s certainly not miles apart from either’s scope or catalog, but the two of them together seem to make a remarkable pair, creating beautiful music that’s timeless, yet sounds anything but modern. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan write `em like they used to, I suppose, but they might just be the only ones.
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – Nancy and Lee
Tindersticks – Curtains
John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey – Dance Hall At Louise Point
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.