Before you even open the disc or listen to a single second of the album, The Gutter Twins’ debut release Saturnalia speaks to you through its striking album cover. The cover is a photo showing classic urban prairie, an abandoned lot between two shotgun houses, where the greenery only grows as weeds between the cracks of a neglected sidewalk and life seems to have gone underground. Two chairs sit in the center of the photo, and behind that, a dark, cloudy sky looms over the scenery and reflects off a dead tree.
Yet, there’s something alive about the album cover. It draws you in and forces you to face the realities of humanity, and that life is not always beautiful and serene.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an album cover so succinctly describe the mood and tone of the music on the album itself. Even the two chairs — which are probably empty because the two members of The Gutter Twins are off recording this excellent album — speak of something profound. Is it abandonment? Poverty? A political message, possibly conjuring the images of destruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Who knows…
Fortunately, the album cover is only one small aspect of why this album moves me. The Gutter Twins have created music that, at every listen, reveals some minor nuance I missed the time before. It’s an emotionally and musically complex album, and one of the best to come out this year (so far).
The Gutter Twins are composed of two former ’90′s music powerhouses — Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees and Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs — and, I have to admit, I was initially skeptical that this combination would work. While I enjoyed The Afghan Whigs back in the day, I was never a fan of the Screaming Trees, and these two lead singers seemed worlds apart to me.
However, Saturnalia shows that these two musicians are a perfect match. While the album moves through many different styles and genres, it remains a unified collection of songs that speak to many different emotions and situations. Plus, it’s a musically strong collection that flows from track to track, and hints at what’s to come on future releases.
Saturnalia kicks off with “The Stations,” a great starting point for this album, as it seems to summarize the mood of the entire album. Dulli and Lanegan share writing credits and vocals for this song; on most of the other songs, Dulli and Lanegan have split up the song writing and recording. “The Stations” captures an airy atmosphere through its reverberating guitars and backing strings, suggesting a maturity in sound as these two grunge masters have grown up. Lanegan sings of a blended religiosity and hope for the future (“I hear the rapture’s coming / They say he’ll be here soon / Right now there’s demons crawling all around my room”), but he also sings of confusion (“Don’t know what they mean”).
“The Stations” transitions well into “God’s Children,” and the album’s first half starts to take shape. It’s full of melancholic ambiguity, and the Lanegan/Dulli mashup expresses this ambiguity best. “All Misery/Flowers,” for example, expresses the need to “hold on” while it also suggests an end: “Let’s ride suicide / Say what you want, but you make it, don’t lie.” The religious ambiguity is also used for stylistic effect, and the blues/R&B influences of these two artists shows through, both in their vocal styles and in their lyrical themes.
Saturnalia takes a turn with “Circle the Fringes,” another Dulli/Lanegan composition rife with strings and growing atmosphere. The album becomes more inward looking, suggesting inner turmoil rather than social concerns. On “Who Will Lead Us?” Lanegan moves through a spiritual ballad that leans on the musician’s blues influences. The call-and-response between the guitar and the vocal styles is pure blues, but it’s still tinged with the loud guitars brooding in the background. Lanegan calls out, as if to God, saying: “I think the chariot is coming / And if it should please you Lord / I give this trumpet up to Gabriel.” Other tracks, like “I Was In Love With You” (a Dulli composition), focus more on personal relationships rather than spiritual concerns.
The album ends by tying up the loose ends left at the beginning of the album. Stylistically, songs like “Each to Each” and “Front Street” bring back the loudness brewing beneath the airy atmosphere that defines this album. Equally, there is more partnership between the two musicians, and on “Front Street,” the album ends with the same thoughts that the album cover initially brings up: “Front Street ain’t a place for a boy who / Likes to talk ways that boys do / Unstrung, young, dumb, comfortably numb.” It conjures up an image of a boy in the street behind the camera who has yet to grow up and face the world, yet it also speaks to some of the most basic human concerns of adulthood.
There’s no doubt that The Gutter Twins have something going for them, and Saturnalia is an excellent start. Don’t expect these two ’90′s stars to stick to old clichés. Instead, expect an album that both reflects originality and a reflected sense of maturity. I have a feeling we may be talking about Saturnalia for years to come.