In talking about the seemingly ever-gestating Saturnalia LP, the Gutter Twins (a strangely monozygotic amalgam of Greg Dulli’s soulman sleaze with Mark Lanegan’s Soulsaver grit) continually mentioned that their singular goal was to reject nostalgia. If a song circled the fringes of their monumental back catalogs, it was abandoned. In their desire to avoid repetition, however, they’ve indeed strayed somewhere they’ve never been before: the middle of the road.
Saturnalia’s flaw lies within its staggeringly glossy production. The antiseptically bright sheen of mainstream polish leaves the disc thoroughly underwhelming. Musically, it’s a surprisingly collection, often echoing the atonal, rolling-thunder gypsy-folk of Bob Dylan’s Desire (1976) — violins form parabolic arcs from churning keyboard rhythms, unhinged percussion incurvates on itself as Dulli and Lanegan invoke nicotine-crooned visions of religious menace and spiritual faltering. Songs as varied as the R&B-flecked acoustic balladry of “Who Will Lead Us” or the understated, malevolently seductive bossa nova shuffle of “Seven Stories Underground” are swathed in darkness and mystery, which should be reflected by a more nuanced production, one that doesn’t leave you expecting to hear Sheryl Crow singing about her friend the Communist or the three-fourths socialist MOR of Audioslave’s last gasp.
Most maligned are the up-tempo tracks. “Idle Hands,” a would-be razor-riffed rocker, struggles and fails beneath the glycerin gloss to gnash and rend as forcefully as Lanegan hell-howls about the dark joys and crushing regrets of being a devil’s plaything. The invasive production slicks the song toward an arena when it belongs in the rollicking neon splash and beer-sweat haze of a back-alley dive. It’s only the activity under the hypershined riff (a ragged weave of spidery folk-blues and torrential dissonance) that saves the song from total failure. As with the rest of the album, it’s what’s in the song’s gutter, the psychic detritus and emotional waste that surge in a street-junk flow above the eclectic musical bedrock, that forms its careworn heart. The dense knob-twirling sweeps it all away.
The ballads emerge relatively unscathed and, especially in the album’s back half, nearly redeem both the aims of the Gutter Twins and Saturnalia itself. This can be heard most especially in “The Body,” where Martina Topley-Bird’s vocals float in curlicue smoke wisps around Lanegan’s slowburn torch-singing while minor electronica flourishes flower among a slow, drum-looped pulse. The song melds physicality and sensuousness with spirituality while rock, blues, folk, and electronica whorl into one another to create a subtle, alluring fold of genres and a harrowing sound.
“The Body,” along with tracks like the tribal dirge of “Bete Noir” and the spare, rolling “Front Street,” maintain a level of creativity that not even the most heavy-handed production could obliterate. The remainder of Saturnalia, though, stands in stark contrast, as its shade and penumbra shatter beneath the production’s bright lights. The only shadows that remain are those cast by the Twins’ earlier, more indelible works.