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20,000 Things I Love: The Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia

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“So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached ever where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.”

– Mark 16: 19-20

“How could I love thee, O Night, were it not for thy stars, whose light is a language I know…”

– Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

I find it hard to restrain myself from hosannas when discussing the work of Greg Dulli. As a longtime and rabid fan of the Afghan Whigs and the Twilight Singers, I am enamored of Dulli’s brilliant confessional lyrics, his careful, dense musicianship and his furnace blast white soul vocals. I have played Gentlemen, the sorely underrated Black Love and 1965 to death, and I am rarely far from some format of the Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle (2003) and Powder Burns (2006). While I am not as familiar with Mark Lanegan’s work, I am in possession, like many of my compatriots, of an oft-played copy of the Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion (1992).

Lanegan’s is one of the unique voices in rock music, and one of its most compelling since Bon Scott – his baritone is a velvet snarl, a freight train, a desolate interstate. There is something metallic in his voice, rusted, as if long-abandoned to frigid rains and sun burnt afternoons. It is one of the most forceful and most recognizable instruments in rock, and it courses through every song Lanegan sings, unopposed and unyielding. While not a singer on a par with Lanegan, Dulli’s voice conveys the force of his personality, urgent and unabashed, and there is something resigned, perhaps even dolorous in it, which has always added a dimension of intelligence and depth to his music. What they have in common, as vocalists, is that each of them sings with the fervor of the saved.

Lanegan has played with numerous people throughout his career, including Kurt Cobain, PJ Harvey, Duff McKagan, Queens of the Stone Age and Isobel Campbell (their new record, Sunday At Devil Dirt, is currently available, and follows their first disc, Ballad of the Broken Seas, from 2006).“Collaborating for me is what keeps me interested in music,” Lanegan says. Dulli is also known for his thirst for collaboration, including past turns with Afterhours, Intramural, Lo Fidelity All Stars and Muggs (Cypress Hill), as well as performing live last year with Lucinda Williams.

Dulli and Lanegan have been each other’s orbit for much of our current decade. In late 2002, Lanegan sang on “Number Nine,” the final song on the Twilight Singers’ masterful Blackberry Belle (2003). In 2004, Dulli toured with Lanegan and played piano on two tracks from Lanegan’s Bubblegum LP (2004); Lanegan later covered Massive Attack’s “Live with Me” on The Twilight Singers’ 2005 EP, A Stitch in Time. The pair debuted as the Gutter Twins live in Rome on September 11, 2005, and recorded Saturnalia in New Orleans and Los Angeles in spurts throughout 2007, releasing the album on Sub Pop earlier this spring. The storied Seattle label has released all of Lanegan’s solo albums to date, and was home to the Afghan Whigs’ Uptown Avondale (1991) and Congregation (1992) prior to the Whigs’ move to Elektra for Gentlemen (1993), their mainstream breakthrough.

“I think that when we started to sing together, just casually at my house in L.A. eight years ago, singing other people’s songs – we both are fans of music and keen interpreters – when we sang together on my back porch, I remember thinking that we sang well together and it was very natural,” Dulli says in an April 8th interview with Amy Phillips of Pitchfork Media. ”I’ve gotten to do a lot of things and meet a lot of people I admired outside of what I did. When you get a chance to play with people – informally is one thing, but when you hook up and make something that’s going to last or mean something to someone, I take it very seriously.”

The sound of Saturnalia is more brackish and metallic – industrial at times – than any of the recent Twilight Singers albums, wherein Dulli has blended elements of electronica and trance through his songs. Writing together for the first time, Dulli and Lanegan have composed a collection of dense, direct rock songs in the tradition of Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden, replete with squalling guitar solos, strings and muscular drumbeats. Saturnalia is a much more traditional record than anything in the Twilight Singers oeuvre – it’s bluesy, atmospheric and haunting, with arena rock (“Idle Hands”) flexing and bristling beside restrained acoustic ballads (“The Body”). Dulli has never forsaken loveliness for darkness, and the record is a sonic chiaroscuro delight, its songs crammed with jagged hooks reminiscent of post-Revolver Beatles and Led Zeppelin circa IV and Physical Graffiti. Lanegan’s vocals ground the record in rich, gritty soil, but never compromise its grandeur. Twilight Singer staples Joseph Arthur, Scott Ford, Jeff Klein, Mathias Schneeberger and Greg Wieczorek all play on Saturnalia; other notable appearances on the record include drummer Brian Young of Fountains of Wayne and former Tricky vocalist Martina Topley Bird, who just released her new solo album, The Blue God.

Saturnalia was the Ancient Roman festival of Saturn which took place on the 17th and 18th of December, and it still describes any sort of licentious, excessive celebration, including orgies. It’s a clever title for a record written and performed by the Philip Roth and Charles Bukowski of American rock n’roll, but Saturnalia is a somber collection, and its lyrics are more about redemption and resurrection than revelry. It is a gospel record.

“Thematic signposts reveal themselves, pointing you down certain roads,” Dulli says. “I couldn’t tell you what Saturnalia’s theme is, but there’s a seeking of transcendence that’s new. I have never written songs like this before; it’s a different temple I’m visiting.”

“I hate to say this,” Lanegan said, “but there’s a more spiritual nature than usually.”

The album opens with “The Stations,” on which Dulli and Lanegan call out: “I hear the rapture’s comin’/they say he’ll be here soon…they say He lives within me/They say for me He died/And now I hear his footsteps/Almost every night.” The second song, “God’s Children,” seems meant to bolster the faithful: “All God’s Children/Hold yourself up to the Light/It’s a free fall – I know.” Christ is perhaps addressed again in “Each to Each,” when the Gutter Twins sing, “the world will follow you/I know you’ll rise/I know you’ll rise,” while “Who Will Lead Us?” is an actual spiritual that calls out to God: “I think that chariot is coming/And should it please you Lord/I’ll give this trumpet up/Give it up to Gabriel/Who’ll lead us now Lord/Who’ll hear the sound of grieving…Out to the Kingdom though my wretched soul be chained/Who’ll lead us now Lord/Don’t you hear me, don’t you hear me crying.”

Even more prevalent on Saturnalia than the presence of God is the promise of Heaven. The devil has been a disappointment, as confessed on “Idle Hands” (“There’s nothing I can do/But be the Devil’s plaything, baby/and know that I’ve been used”), while Hell may be our corporeal existence itself, that from which we depart for Heaven. On “Circle the Fringes,” life is described as a dream that lies beneath the reality of Heaven: “And I still believe there’s a Heaven below/All I see is a dream/that lies beneath it all.” Two songs later, on “Seven Stories Underground,” Lanegan sings: “Heaven – so fine/Heaven – It’s quite a climb/from seven stories underground.” “All Misery/Flowers” mentions resurrection in passing before Lanegan confesses he did all he did “just to get through to Heaven: “They’d shine, your eyes/gonna make me rain gonna make me rise/When I’m gone baby don’t you forget it/I did all I did just to get through to Heaven.” It’s a lovely idea, and fitting here, that Heaven might be our reward for just surviving our mortal lives. The song is a call-and-response dirge, but leave it to Dulli and Lanegan to craft one this infectious. “All Misery/Flowers” also features a couplet that should be in the running for best lyric of the year: “Little girls might twitch at the way I itch/But when I burn/it’s a son of a bitch.” When you hear Lanegan sing it, you believe it.

Bassist Scott Ford designed the CD package, which is exceptionally beautiful. The cover features a Frank Relle photograph of an empty lot in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, while the inlay card features Sam Holden’s saturated portraits of Dulli and Lanegan. As MP3s drive album artwork toward extinction, Saturnalia, as a work of photography and graphic design, is a Roman candle fired into the coming digital darkness.

“We enjoyed the process of making the record,” Lanegan said. “We enjoyed the results, we enjoy each other’s company, we enjoy traveling together. So I don’t know why we wouldn’t make another record. Whether it’s the next thing that we do or not, I can’t say, but I’m sure there’ll be another one.”

Saturnalia is a dusky, disconcerting (albeit lovely) ride. It’s mink, it’s butterflies, an oil slick on a dark sea, a tire burning in the middle of an empty highway, the battered cover of a leather-bound Bible…Messrs. Dulli and Lanegan have built a dark temple. Whatever it is, it burns like a son of a bitch.