Listen While You Can: Dark Night of the Soul

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It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a gravely dark satirical novel. The industrial juggernaut EMI, by means of a mysterious copyright assertion, has left the future of what is truly a remarkable and artistically ambitious project looking worryingly bleak.

Dark Night of the Soul is an album-length collection of songs masterminded by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, and boasting a veritable dream-team of collaborators. Integral to the enterprise is film-maker David Lynch, who has put together a ‘visual narrative’ for the music in the form of a series of photographs and who twice takes on the role of vocalist. Elsewhere this role is amply fulfilled by members of the all-star cast: Iggy Pop, Black Francis (The Pixies), The Flaming Lips, Jason Lytle (formerly of Grandaddy), Julian Casablancas (The Strokes), Vic Chesnutt, Nina Persson (The Cardigans), Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), James Mercer (The Shins), and Suzanne Vega.

What’s special about this record is its unity and coherence, quite an achievement in view of the variety among its contributors. Each track is unmistakably in the typical style of whoever’s on vocals, and yet the songs not only cohere but are in fact utterly interdependent, musically and thematically. Structurally simple, the songs underwhelm as isolated pieces, but make perfect sense as part of the album’s grand structure. In some cases the point of a track only comes clear when the album is listened to as a whole. Insane Lullaby, for example, sung by Mercer, seems stubbornly shapeless in itself – muffled tones and aimless melodies – but provides the ideal launch-pad for Daddy’s Gone, the poppy number that ensues; and the transition is capitalized on by a decidedly brief pause between the songs.

The weight of themes such as pain, growing old, and dealing with the experience of childhood, is alleviated by songs which bring out the simple mundaneness of life. Hear for example Lytle in Everytime I’m With You: ‘every time you come by / we get so trashed / and stay up all night; / well it’s so wrong, / but it’s all right – / yeah it’s all right’. Or equally, Vega in The Man Who Played God: ‘all things you can see around you – / you can change them, rearrange them, in your mind; / if you love tales of transformation, / well then 1 – 2 – 3 / you could be / the man who played god’.

Even at lighter points, such as these, there’s an underlying darkness, but it’s certainly not all doom and gloom, as some mistakenly seem always to expect from Sparklehorse (a.k.a. Mark Linkous, and here, I’m afraid, comes the inevitable reminder that he nearly managed to kill himself while on a European tour with Radiohead in 1996 by wildly overdosing on a cocktail of anti-depressants, alcohol, valium and heroin). This is without question his finest achievement so far. There was a good chance it would be a success: the best material on his last album, 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, had been the product of collaboration with Danger Mouse, whose importance to Dark Night should not be underestimated.

Given that this album more than most demands to be listened to as a whole, I’m reluctant to name highlights, but I can’t resist drawing attention to Little Girl. After releasing Is This It?, The Strokes found themselves at what seemed like a creative dead-end. Casablancas’ insouciant vocals seemed appropriate only to the lo-fi, uncomplicated, guitar-based sound that they had perfected on their first outing, and were unlikely to improve. Little Girl gives an idea of what they might (and should) have done at that juncture. It could easily be The Strokes, only with greater lyrical maturity and the judiciously-applied addition of electronic effects.

It’s terribly ironic that one of the year’s most original conceptions has come up against a copyright issue and may never be released. Luckily, in the age we live in, it doesn’t follow that you can’t listen to it. You can. And I urge you to do so while you can (because EMI can be pretty efficient when it comes to copyright infringements). It’s still being streamed in its entirety on the [American] National Public Radio web-site (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104129585).

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