Sunday at Devil Dirt, the second outing for Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, offers more of the same smoldering, atmospheric sound they created on Ballad of the Broken Seas. Although the novelty of the guy from Screaming Trees playing Tom Waits with the lady from Belle and Sebastian has worn off, the strength of the duo’s sophomore set rests squarely in the strong songwriting of Campbell paired with Lanegan’s spare, moody vocals. What Sunday at Devil Dirt lacks in newness is more than equaled by the continued quality of the duo’s output.
Sunday at Devil Dirt had a release in the United Kingdom last year, and the album continues in the same vein as the duo’s earlier collaboration. Campbell, the main writer and arranger, does her most meaningful work in creating eerie, minor-key environments for Lanegan’s voice to inhabit. The result resembles the gothic murder ballads that are traditional in many cultures, but Campbell’s orchestration gives the songs an added sense of complexity. This effect is multiplied when Campbell steps forward, as she does on “Shotgun Blues,” and takes on more of the vocal responsibilities. Though Lanegan’s voice is more than capable of carrying an album, hearing Campbell’s voice as contrast, even in a solo number, makes the album a more enjoyable and complete experience.
Sunday at Devil Dirt, for all the dark imagery and surgically perfect string arrangements, works best when Lanegan and Campbell involve themselves with simpler sentiments. The last six songs on the album (and the great majority of the bonus tracks accompanying the North American release) step back from the foreboding seriousness of the early numbers and focus instead on basic melodies and lyrics. Here, when Sunday at Devil Dirt eases up, the true genius of the pairing between Lanegan and Campbell becomes apparent.