The cover of Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse’s parade of musical superheroes, Dark Night of the Soul, suggests a movie poster. But the album is more like a festival of short films, each one marked with the unique touch of a different, storied first billing. It’s like Cannes for music lovers, and a very enjoyable sum of so many glorious parts.
Featuring members of the Flaming Lips, the Shins, the Strokes, the Pixies, and Super Furry Animals, as well as loner Iggy Pop and others, Dark Night offers nothing short of a thoroughly impressive roster of music veterans who have all left a formidable imprint on the fabric of popular music history. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse are wise to organize the egos by assigning them each a track or two, with each one personalizing their delegated tracks while their hosts provide the sonic threads that tie it all together. Having so many cooks in the kitchen threatens the cohesiveness of the album, but since it’s more of a compilation than an album by a supergroup, it’s a minor complaint.
Of course, the problem arises that some of these musicians just have more personality than others, which results in a bit of unevenness in the quality of the songwriting. The Shins’s James Mercer and the Cardigans’s Nina Persson, for example, are given two songs a piece and yet consistently fail to leave lasting impressions in comparison to their colleagues. While Persson’s “Daddy’s Gone” at least succeeds with its sweeping, Oasis-esque hook, “The Man Who Played God” does not ascend above the kind of stale alt-folk we’ve heard from many a ‘90s college-rock band. Mercer, whose past work suggests he’s capable of much more, merely echoes the Flaming Lips’s opening track, “Revenge,” on his “Star Eyes (I Can Catch It),” and he rehashes old Shins ideas on “Insane Lullaby.” This is in contrast to, say, Iggy Pop, who is given all of two minutes and 50 seconds on the whole album and turns the great “Pain” into incendiary shock therapy for the ear drums.
“Just War,” with Super Furry Animals’s Gruff Rhys, seems hopped up on LSD and rainbows, creating a vintage, Beatles-sounding ballad. “The last survivor crawling through the dust/It’s just war,” Rhys sings, while the poppy melody turns its post-apocalyptic landscape into Strawberry Fields. Meanwhile, “Angel’s Harp” features a tobacco-chewin’, jerky-eattin’ Black Francis (of the Pixies); it’s a great mix of that band’s pre-grunge grunge and George Thorogood-style rasp.
The best song by far, though, is the rain-soaked closer, “Dark Night of the Soul,” featuring Vic Chestnutt. The album’s most simple track and yet its most evocative, this is typical Danger Mouse ingenuity. Chestnutt’s anguished moans fade into digital echoes through a thick fog of turntable static that sounds like an electric rainstorm. The song truly is a dark night, and the listener is caught in it, lost and alone.
If Dark Night were created 20 years ago under the same circumstances, it may have never reached a single pair of ears. Legal disputes with record label EMI have suspended the album’s release indefinitely, compelling the lead musical parties to include a symbolic, blank CD-R with the supplemental photo book by David Lynch. Torrents will be busy expending bandwidth on the illegal downloading of Dark Night, but this is a work of music that deserves something more. It has all the style of a silver screen premiere—if only mp3s came with curtains and a red carpet. Albums like this are a reminder that we’ve perhaps lost something in the digital age. If it’s true that we’re the ones fumbling in the dark with rain falling over our heads, Dark Night is, at the very least, one bright ray of hope.