Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, the caterwauling former frontmen of Screaming Trees and the Afghan Whigs, respectively, have both earned a good measure of maturity. Now that they’re at least 10 years past their prime, you can hear hard living and the burden of experience in their voices: Lanegan’s has taken on some of Tom Waits’s nicotine snarl, and Dulli’s soulful quiver stumbles off-key a bit more than it did when he was supposed to be the next big thing. Their long-anticipated collaboration might have been an intriguing document about the second acts of America’s alt-rock elder statesmen; judging from the album’s fairly unrelentingly doomy compositions, they probably have some (not altogether surprising) things to say on the topic. Unfortunately, though, Saturnalia raises the question: At what point does one cease sounding mature and start sounding old?
To be fair, Lanegan and Dulli have both managed to carve out fruitful solo careers under the long shadows cast by their fame-grazing pasts, but this record does not, shall we say, sell the drama. Turgid and meandering, overproduced yet unexcited, it’s the sound of two titans getting serious—to a fault. Sub Pop’s press release describes the record as “evoking everything from Indian sitars to Appalachian folk and Delta grit,” and you can kind of hear the overweaning ambition implied by such hype-speak falling flat in most of these songs. Though the duo stuffs Saturnalia with lots of ominous-sounding keyboards and vaguely bluesy acoustic guitar parts and, here and there, big loud riffs that try too hard, the album is defined by a monotony that not even a kitchen sink could save.
Aside from a few cursory experiments with a drum machine (“Each to Each” is almost a highlight) and the wannabe stomper single “Idle Hands,” the duo’s strikingly unvariegated rhythmic approach doesn’t help. They were probably aiming for hypnotic or dreamy, but except for the cinematic bookends “The Stations” and “Front Street,” the slow dances mostly crash-land in Snoresville. Though each man’s voice, in its own right, belongs in the pantheon of great rock vocals, Lanegan and Dulli don’t really mesh well harmonically. Even on otherwise tightly composed, effectively menacing songs like “Idle Hands,” the lack of effective vocal interplay leaves things sounding confused. The single is particularly frustrating because, while it would probably be a great Lanegan song or a great Dulli song, the option here is all or nothing, and either way, we lose.