Saturnalia was a festival back in the heyday of the Roman Empire where the slaves and masters traded places for the day. How the hell this didn’t devolve into frequent, French Revolution-esque decapitations is beyond me. Saturnalia by The Gutter Twins (Greg Dulli from the Twilight Singers and Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees and those badass collaborations with Isobel Campbell and Soulsavers) is an album of brooding rock that manages (just barely) to avoid devolving into K-ROQ (my local “new rock alternative” station which is neither new, rock, nor alternative to anything except good taste) ready near-emo and stabilizes somewhere in the territory of that haunted, dark shit that Lanegan has so expertly dropped on his solo work.
My expectations for any album involving Mark Lanegan are exceedingly high. I offer this as some sort of disclosure – I fully expected to be blown away by Saturnalia, following his work with Queens of the Stoneage, the aforementioned Campbell and Soulsavers, as well as his splendid solo album Bubblegum (which wins the Irony award for album titles for all time). So maybe I’m a victim of my own expectations here, but Saturnalia certainly didn’t grab me the first time through. “Stations” starts the record off with some of that traditional Lanegan religious reference (he’s been doing it since “Winter Song” with the Screaming Trees: “Jesus knocking/on my door/ late last night/ and early this morning”). And that stuff still plays pretty well when Lanegan sings, “There by the grace of God go I”. “Stations” sounds, as does most of this album, like The Gutter Twins crashed the last supper, skipped the bread and hit the wine, and, to the shock of all twelve apostles (and themselves), they somehow still end up on the right hand of the lord. “God’s Children” and “All Misery/Flowers” do nothing to change the mood and then Saturnalia throws a pretty nifty curve ball with “The Body,” an acoustic guitar driven, highly harmonious affair that does much to cleanse the palette. But then they go right back to the K-ROQ stuff with “Idle Hands,” which sounds like the sort of shit Guns ‘n’ Roses used to have wet dreams about playing. To be fair, if all the rock on the radio sounded like The Gutter Twins, it would be a damn site better. Remember, I said Saturnalia avoids being formulaic, emo-crap by the grace not of God but by the two tall, dark, and smoky-voiced motherfuckers at the helm. Lanegan and Dulli have never been (though I’m not a huge Twilight Singers fan) ones to settle for standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-puts-on-makeup-and-sings-about-black-parades formula that is pervasive in 99% of the rock music the kids are listening to today (which is really just an extension of the sleazy rock band whose biggest hit is a so-called “power-ballad” formula of my misspent youth – Aerosmith has been trading on this for more than a decade now and really should be killed). There are no love-ballads on here, there are death-ballads. The narrators of all the songs truly are gutter kids, if not always (or ever, from what I can tell) twins. On album closer “Front Street”, the narrator bonds with someone over drugs.
So why can’t I get fully into Saturnalia? Am I crippled by my own expectations – that any album featuring Mark Lanegan should jump from its packaging straight to my year-end top 10 list? Is it my rock snobbery? Some of Saturnalia (especially “Idle Hands”) sounds a lot like the hair metal shit that L.A. is still inexplicably infatuated with, but most of it is so varied and textured that I can’t possibly dismiss it on the grounds that it’s one-dimensional. My favorite tracks are the ones that most heavily feature Lanegan, but the Dulli tracks (like “Front Street”) are not necessarily bad. Just days ago, I was really itching for an album that really rocks (but isn’t stupid), something that would get me excited about loud guitars and pounding drums. Saturnalia definitely doesn’t play to that particular need because its mood and subject matter don’t really lend themselves to that. I will say this: if Bollocks! had existed when I first heard Boxer by The National, I would’ve written about it in much the same way; I liked a good deal of it but felt kind of underwhelmed by it. By the end of 2007 (and indeed today), I will stand by it as the finest album of that year. Like all bastards, I reserve the right to change my mind a million times about anything (just today, prompted by a text message from a friend in New York to think about the new Mike Doughty album, I realized that I don’t really dig it nearly as much as I did the first time I heard it and, in fact, I really miss the earnestness and lo-fi charm of Skittish). So while I waffle on Saturnalia now, I may well tell you later this year that it is the greatest album of 2008. For now, I give it a shrug and a hopeful “meh.” Lanegan still fucking rocks, though.