I've looked forward to everything Mark Lanegan touches since I stumbled into fandom with the Screaming Trees' "Uncle Anesthesia" back in 1991. With his gravel baritone, image-rich lyrics, and dissipated delivery, he lent a unique voice to the fin de siecle music of the 1990s and has aged admirably into the new century. He keeps himself busy with numerous projects, one of the most notable being the trio of duet albums with Isobel Campbell of which "Hawk" is the third. Their first, "Ballad of the Broken Seas," garnered a Mercury Prize nomination in 2006. Produced and largely performed by Campbell, "Ballad" subverted the normal male-female duo album paradigm well-established by Gainsbourg/Birkin, Hazelwood/Sinatra, etc. In the past, the male had played the lead as far as songwriting and production were concerned. Here, as well as on the dustier but equally brilliant follow-up "Sunday At Devil Dirt," Campbell wore the pants -- belying her gossamer-waif voice, which sounded like it might blow away in the face of Lanegan's deep dark growl... but it never did. The pairing worked admirably, and the albums were brilliant. Lanegan's songwriting contributions grounded the proceedings with a rich darkness and a spooky grace.
So why the mediocre rating, and why so much past tense?
I pre-ordered this album. I was very excited for it to arrive, and it did, 3 or 4 days before it's official street date. I gave it a listen, and experienced the first genuine disappointment I've ever felt with either Lanegan solo or with the Campbell/Lanegan duo. It should have been a warning when I was reading the press for the album, where Campbell said Lanegan had left all the "heavy lifting" to her. In fact, most of the songs were written, arranged, and recorded as backing tracks before Lanegan was even in the same room with them. As a result, his vocals seem a little inconsequential to the whole affair, sounding desultory and tacked on. Although there are some genuinely great moments on "Hawk," the great majority suffers from Campbell's attempt to conjure the dustbowl sounds of americana by way of her native Scotland.
Lanegan's lack of involvement in the songwriting means that the hangovers, the shadowy figures, and the run-down carnivals that populated their first two collaborations are absent. What was left was an album of songs with really obvious rhymes and folk-rock tropes, sounding for all the world like Isobel Cambell tried to pen a solo album of "americana," and when she realized her whispery Scots voice couldn't carry it she had Mark Lanegan double all her vocals -- singing goofy couplets about Christmas and starry-eyed romance that just sound forced. Forced and rushed. Though the album is nicely recorded and adequately produced, the whole thing sounds like it was rather quickly conceived and hurried along to its release.
The skronking, discordant instrumental title track with its motif lifted directly from "Green Onions" and the blues bar cover-band swagger of "Get Behind Me" do little to alleviate the overall lightweight feel of the album. It's really only the closing track "Lately" that lifts off with it's sanctified backing vocals, despite its uncanny musical similarity to Bad Company's song "Shooting Star." While I'm not ready to write this album off completely (I'm going to give it a few years to sink in, let my disappointment wear off, and see if it sounds better to me after several hundred listens), I do think this pair is capable of much greater things and I'd like to see them go to the woodshed, so to speak, and really bring their A-game for their next album together. Hopefully, this one is just a stopgap.