Dark Night of the Soul (self-released, 2009)
by Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Brian Burton has been an ideal man of the moment in the last few years, because his talent is destabilized in a way that speaks volumes to music’s present flux of genre and medium. Burton – as Danger Mouse or as Pelican City or as half of Gnarls Barkley or of DM & Jemini or of Dangerdoom or as the shadow hitmaker behind Beck or Gorillaz or the Black Keys – never seems content to be merely good, or to merely make music; he’d rather be flawed and interesting (i.e., The Grey Album) than flawless and dull (i.e., to be fair, Pelican City’s Rhode Island). So the pinnacle of his career is going to be something that clicks as a hit and as a gesture, something flawless and interesting at once. And if the album no longer exists as a business model by the time that happens, chances are Burton will be on to something better.
But Dark Night of the Soul: not that pinnacle. It’s incoherent if you don’t know what’s going on, and disappointingly discombobulated once you do. For something billed as a Danger Mouse album, it’s suspiciously easy to ignore Burton’s presence, or that of co-curator Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. It’s a project with too many authors and not enough personality, too many ideas and not enough meaning. It is, at most, the best alt-rock benefit compilation Red Hot didn’t bother to release at the turn of the century.
What happened was roughly this: Burton and Linkous met a few years back and, after collaborating a couple times on Sparklehorse’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, began souping up some instrumentals that Linkous had been reluctant to sing over. They developed a handful of tracks and sent them out to a handful of vocalists, inviting them to write their own lyrics, and perceived some thematic unity in the results. Burton solicited visual input from David Lynch, who listened to the rest of the album (interestingly, none of the other vocalists got to) and devised a series of photographs to accompany each song. Then, thanks to a contractual rhubarb between Burton and EMI, the music got cut at the last minute and Dark Night of the Soul shipped as a book of photos with a blank CD.
How is the album (supposing you are somehow inventive enough to hear it)? It’s okay. It’s a lot of singers working out their respective shticks over a generally unsurprising sampler of wholesomely twisted pop: a brooding revenge ballad from Wayne Coyne, mundane second-person squalor from Jason Lytle, clumsy vitriol from Black Francis and clumsier vitriol from Iggy Pop (“good karma won’t get you anywhere / look at Jesus and his hair”), and a debauched love song from Julian Casablancas that could, in a different world, have been Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Lynch sings on “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It),” one of the few memorable cuts, plus a title track where he sounds like one imagines Doseone would sound had he witnessed the murder of a close friend immediately prior to entering the recording booth.
Burton and Linkous are self-effacing enough on the original canvases that any push-pull between them is wiped out by finished-product stage; Linkous turns in the agreeable “Daddy’s Gone” (in which top billing is given to Nina Persson of the Cardigans and A Camp, who sings a distant backup), but there are no surprises in it. The heaviest hand by far belongs to Lynch, who for all his visual acuity simply cannot tell a story without making a huge interpretive mess. Here he takes three or four lyrics from each song and couples them with stills (which are as David Foster Wallace once described them: “some of which art photos are creepy and moody and sexy and cool and some of which are just photos of spark plugs and dental equipment and seem kind of dumb”), interpreting things overly literally (“Everytime I’m With You”) or not nearly literally enough (“Just War”).
It’s hard to tell where saturation shades into spin, but all this media doesn’t add up to anything. Dark Night of the Soul feels hollow (and probably would have even when it included the actual music) because so much went into it and so little comes out, and because the glitz of Lynch’s cultural-capital benefactorship doesn’t cover up the sense that the conception came after the realization. On its musical merits, the album is no more half-baked than, say, The World According to RZA – but then nobody was dressing that up like an art project, like a neat little collectible package.
Harder to tell is what would have made Dark Night of the Soul a success. What if yet another party had written the lyrics? What if Lynch’s photographs had inspired the songs, instead of vice versa, or if the songs were recorded onto those blank CDs and sent in by the people who expected to be the listeners? What if a lot more people were involved, instead of a lot fewer? Would it be more of a dream-team album, or more haphazard slapdash? Can it be both at the same time? I’m all for Burton answering these questions by example, but mostly so we can move past this kind of identity crisis, and he can go back to being a great producer with occasional flashes of innovative radiance, Linkous to being an underrated rock puppeteer, and Lynch an influential weirdo who does nice work, if you can get it.back