I’m not gonna lie: I downright loved the last album by Soulsavers, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. I loved its unwieldy as fuck title, I loved its post-apocalyptic gospel feel, and I loved it for giving me a duet between Mark Lanegan and Will Oldham (on a cover of a Neil Young song! Grizzled dude trifecta!). So I was quite excited to discover that Soulsavers – Brits Rich Machin and Ian Glover – had teamed up with Lanegan once again for Broken, which doesn’t feature Mr. Oldham but it does have a Palace Brothers cover (Palace Brothers = Will Oldham = Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I know, it’s hard to keep track). But it has not been, for me, as immediately rewarding as its predecessor. So I decided I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of Broken with another person, mostly to try to work out my real feelings for the album. Because I’m slightly biased in favor of Soulsavers, I’ll handle the “pros”, but I wanted to find a real con with which to discuss the “cons.” So I called up my good friend Zombie Ken Lay (I know what you’re thinking: Lay’s conviction was vacated when he conveniently died, but dying don’t mean you broke the law any less, n’est pas?) and he sauntered on over to my imaginary office for a chat about Soulsavers and Broken.
Me: Well, the first thing this album has going for it is Mark Lanegan. The dude’s voice is perfectly suited to the sort of pseudo-gospel atmospherics of Soulsavers, and it especially soars on the Palace Brothers cover, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” By the way, I wasn’t familiar with this Will Oldham tune before I got Broken, but if I had to guess which song on here was written by the Bonnie Prince, I’d guess that one. It’s just so him.
Zombie Ken Lay: Yes, but doesn’t Broken feel a bit melodramatic at times? It’s Not How Far You Fall had dramatic tension, but Broken often sails over the top, especially on “Some Misunderstanding”, which is nearly eight minutes long. The stakes feel artificially high on this album.
Me: That’s a valid point (from a guy who knows a thing or two about making things artificially high). But they’ve also added some badass guitar work on these songs. I didn’t like “Some Misunderstanding” the first time I heard it either, but it’s really grown on me. It’s another stellar track for Lanegan, too. I kinda forgive the song its melodrama because Mark Lanegan sings it so well.
ZKL: Okay, but what about the two long instrumental tracks on the album? They’re both dirges. Completely unnecessary.
Me: Yeah, I’ve got to agree with you there. The thing with these guys is, they’re always striving to be epic, almost cinematic, really —
ZKL: I’m gonna stop you right there. You realize that the Pitchfork review said basically the same thing, right? And any time you lend credibility to a Pitchfork review, that’s a “con.”
Me: I guess you’d know something about cons, wouldn’t you, Ken? Am I right?
ZKL: Fuck you.
Me: Just saying. Anyway, getting back to the album. I know it sucks to validate a Pitchfork review, but they’re right about Soulsavers trying to make Big Music. Just like Sigur Ros (but in English!), they can stumble on the road to epic awesomeness. But when they don’t stumble, they make some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard in a long time. “All the Way Down” is glorious.
ZKL: Yeah, but “Can’t Catch the Train” is basically a blatant Tom Waits ripoff.
Me: True. It’s not an entirely unlistenable one, but you’re right – Soulsavers should leave broken-ass songs about trains to Tom Waits. It’s sort of his niche. On the positive side, on the enormously positive side, Broken features guest vocals from Red Ghost, a.k.a. Rosa Agostino. Her voice is perfect for this kind of music and she has more cool stuff on her MySpace page. It’s worth at least two “pros” for Broken when you consider the Red Ghost tracks. Album closer “By My Side” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time. In fact, I’m going to suggest that, while taking a break from making awesome albums with Isobel Campbell, Mark Lanegan makes an awesome album with Rosa Agostino.
ZKL: The album would be better if they lost the instrumentals and put Agostino on every track. As it is, Broken is overlong – there’s not a song under four minutes on here and there are three songs that are around seven minutes long.
Me: You’re wrong, Zombie Ken Lay. There are two songs that are shorter than four minutes, but one is a gratuitous instrumental.
ZKL: Sorry. I’m not good with numbers.
Me: I know. Everyone knows. It’s okay. Any final “cons” for Broken?
ZKL: It just feels a little uneven to me, too much like the soundtrack to a movie version of Fallout or something. But other than that, I don’t have anything else negative to say about it.
Me: And that’s discounted for agreeing with the Pitchfork review, at least in spirit. To close the case for the “pros”, I will say that Soulsavers are remarkably consistent. People who dug It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Length of Your Album Title will probably enjoy Broken, though perhaps just a tiny bit less. I considered It’s Not How Far one of the best albums of 2007, and, while I doubt Broken will be one of my very favorites of 2010, I have been listening to it at least once a week since I got it with no major regrets.
So I’ll go ahead and say the “pros” beat the “cons” by a field goal (in overtime) on Broken and hopefully that will encourage people to check the album out and decide for themselves. Soulsavers are a group whose good music is amazing enough to compel me to forgive their mediocre music (I have yet to hear anything from them that is outright bad music). I’d like to thank my guest, Zombie Ken Lay, for debating the Soulsavers album with me and for not eating my brains. He might have been a lying, stealing bastard in life, but he seems to be a pretty stand-up guy in death. Just don’t let him do your taxes.