The funny anecdote littering the press materials for this album is that Greg Dulli first learned about his impending collaboration with Mark Lanegan — even learned the name of the project, Gutter Twins — via an interview in which Lanegan, never having consulted Dulli, blithely announced the project into reality. It’s funny. It’s funny too because you might imagine Lanegan — gruff, sneering, tattoos on his hands — running his whole life like that. I mean, who’s gonna say no to this guy? Plus it establishes a kind of perfect, presumptuous dynamic between Dulli, the slick/scummy crooner of Afghan Whigs, and Lanegan, the tough guy who made his name wailing away between those two giant twins in Screaming Trees. These two are 90s indie royalty, but more importantly they have both always shone brightest singing from the shadows of humanity. Dulli, with the Whigs and more recently the Twilight Singers, comes across as a divine creep, while Lanegan, who won accolades for his unlikely recent collaboration with wispy ex-Belle & Sebastianite Isobel Campbell, comes across as more of a wounded outlaw who, deep down, is bent on self-salvation. It’s a buddy album!
‘Supergroups’ have a pretty bad reputation, normally being code for bloated, crap-sounding collaborations between bored artists whose stars are on the wane. But as the slow twists of guitar wind alongside Lanegan’s pleading, graveled voice on opener ‘The Stations,’ giving way to a soaring duet of impending evil and persecution (presumably our singers are, ahem, standing in for Jesus), it seems ludicrous this teaming hasn’t happened sooner. Dulli’s slicked-hair scumbagism provides a perfect foil for Lanegan’s nihilistic bruiser. Both have obvious crushes on Nick Cave (who doesn’t), yet somehow the sum of the parts here evokes a much closer approximation of Cave’s aura than either singer taken on his own. On ‘God’s Children’ Dulli sounds like he’s singing a bleak come-on from the end of a long hallway, while a wall of guitar squall, pinging between screeching atonality and major chord exhalations, pinions the doom-laden, suicide-contemplative lyrics, and Lanegan’s rumbling voice sucks the demonic tenor lower into the depths, while some fiery guitar solos do the rest. Follow-up ‘All Misery/Flowers’ builds from a rough, spare beat, with Lanegan’s perfectly smoked sing-speak creating a bluesy whirlpool of dread and familial dysfunction, as guitars and bass swell to a consuming climax alongside an eerie keyboard wail. In fact, there’s a lot of wailing on Saturnalia, from the two gifted singers, doubtless, but also from a seething armada of guitars (always drenched in plenty of distortion, but only occasionally harkening back to sounds these two made a decade ago).
The wall of fuzz is so unceasing that it could be tiresome if the tunes didn’t feel so damned tense at every turn, and if Dulli and Lanegan didn’t let out the squall with a few well-placed power-chords. ‘Circle the Fringes’ utilizes echoing, vaguely Eastern strings to evoke the kind of apocalyptic mysticism that made HBO’s Carnival so sonically terrifying, before an ambling acoustic swell shuffles Dulli’s murky vocals onward into the gloom, and the track explodes with some masterful major-chord pathos. Lanegan enters the song late, like a summoned spirit reminding the séance-attendees why they came to the party. ‘Who Will Lead Us’ is more bluesy bluster, but infused with some Judgment Day gospel feel for good measure. Follow-up ‘Seven Stories Underground’ is in the same suit, this time trading the possibility of heavenly redemption for a lazy, winsome rockabilly lament; Lanegan’s vocals are for once nearly sweet, Dulli adding drawn-out ‘oohs’ in the back. Yet the album slips quickly back down into the muck, from the distorted Lennon-ism of ‘I Was In Love With You’ to ‘Bête Noire’ with its swamp-rock, before resolving to the slightly jarring digital beats and clean guitars on ‘Each to Each,’ where Dulli’s vocals seem a bit unsuited to the laptop lean, and finally to album closer ‘Front Street,’ a sleepy acoustic (and bird call) number that grows increasingly sinister and seductive, which is what this band seems to do best.