This collaboration between the angelic troubadour and grumpy bad-ass runs deep, but it doesn’t forego a swipe at a nice dramatic surface to get things started. The cover art features Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle & Sebastian) at the forefront fixing her hair and staring off into the distance. In the background is Mark Lanegan (formerly of the Screaming Trees) relaxing with tar-black hair that matches the color of his lungs and the Gideon Bible he labored over on his 2004 release, Bubblegum. They’re inside a backwoods motel, and as the record plays I can only assume this is exactly how the pair behaves when in such an establishment. Ballad of the Broken Seas is mysterious and theatrical and totally cool.
In fact, a significant portion of the album plays out like the cover implies it will: Campbell and Lanegan were probably in the same room recording, but the record sounds like they didn’t know it. Campbell doesn’t even go for the same language when she pops in for the chorus on opener “Deus Ibi Est,” a spoken-word war-march for Lanegan: “Oh, demons I shall shame you/ Down the barrel of my gun, and one by one I’ll name you.” Their whispers overlap, seemingly oblivious to each other on “False Husband”: the only witnesses are the black country guitar assigned to Lanegan’s vocals and a piano swell to hide Campbell’s indistinguishable words as they float through.
If this doesn’t seem like a logical pairing, it’s familiar territory for Lanegan. His “band” for the aforementioned release was whoever was in the room at recording time. Fortunately, it was usually PJ Harvey, who saddled up as his desert vamp. The two made for a burnt-out, dreamy and druggy pair. That’s where Ballad of the Broken Seas differs: Campbell gets top billing here. She produced the album and wrote into most of the songs a strange folk imagery to match her old-world, church-house falsetto.
Ballad of the Broken Seas is an exercise in vocal restraint by two artists supremely confident in their vocal abilities. Lanegan has most of the lines, but it’s Campbell’s curiosity with the beast that drives the album. She lets him cut loose on the Hank Williams cover “Ramblin’ Man,” but she’s also whispering beneath his braggadocio — she might just be messing with him, but she’s clearly not intimidated. On “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me,” she stands in the corner, taking in the show until she’s needed. Lanegan’s voice is so delicate here that he warbles and cracks like latter-day Cash; Campbell lets him get as far as he can on his own before jumping in to thicken things up.
Campbell even gets Lanegan to drop the macho bit (briefly) so the pair can roll around in the dust for a couple of strange but sexy numbers. Lanegan admits that “there’s a crimson bird flying when I go down on you” on the bedtime love song “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me.” Campbell isn’t nearly as timid, her mystic sex ballad “Saturday’s Gone” full of existential situations and demons up her skirt.
The album is not flawless; “It’s Hard to Kill a Bad Thing” is an understated acoustic instrumental and therefore is missing the two best instruments. But most of the tracks are country-folk minimalism that’s bulked up by violin, high-noon storytelling, fantastic imagery (from “Revolver”: “The earth will turn and powder burn and you are my revolver”) and moments of random inspiration (the choppy piano and Campbell’s girlie-girl vocals on “Dusty Wreath” recreate a distant Christmas memory).
The term “rambler” in rock is reserved for serious mavericks. If you’re going to claim to be a rambling man, you’d better be able to back it up with some serious rambling. Mick Jagger was a midnight rambler, Jerry Garcia rambled on rose and here Campbell seems to have found and tamed her desert cowboy. Ballad of the Broken Seas is not a concept album and far from a traditional rock or folk record; this is what makes Campbell’s and Lanegan’s clear-cut vision so rare. That we’re privy to the goal makes the gentle but weighty execution that much more fulfilling.