There are few surprises on the debut album from the Gutter Twins, ’90s renaissance rockers Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. As was the case with each of their previous bands, the songwriting on this record sits upon a dark throne through which themes like dysfunctional love, personal tragedy, and self-doubt are exhaustively considered. Such grim lyrics and accordantly moody instrumentation have long been the preferred tools of these two eminently troubled loners, and not surprisingly, the result sounds like a logical amalgamation of both frontmen’s former outfits.
However, if there’s a prevailing musical influence to be identified on Saturnalia, it’s clearly that of the Whigs. Beginning with their 1988 debut, the Ohio group cut a uniformly clear path with their releases until 1996’s disappointing Black Love, which attempted to remodel the band as some kind of sexually juiced funk/soul combo. To such ends, this new album sounds much like a refreshed and re-focused Afghan Whigs who’ve successfully worked the bad juju out of their system, and who have invited Lanegan to join up as an added presence.
And presence he does have. Saturnalia places the vocal skills of the erstwhile Screaming Tree appropriately towards the front of the mix, and on songs such as the epic “Idle Hands,” the timbre sinks to such rumbling depths that one might imagine Lanegan’s regular speaking voice to be routinely deployed at 16 RPMs. By far the album’s most propulsive track, it could pass as a stand-in for the Whigs at their finest but is given a fresh veneer with the addition of a more prescient vocal angle than anything in Dulli’s stable. Clearly not being the sort to be outdone by a dinner guest, Dulli successfully re-captures the reigns in “Circle the Fringes” – a gloomy, cabaret inspired number which recalls some of the best moments of the Whigs’ universally acclaimed Gentlemen LP.
Perhaps surprisingly, the album’s most interesting moment arrives in an uncharacteristically light and innocent song called “The Body,” which reveals an appealing moment of vulnerability in both men’s oft-impenetrable repertoires. It’s in those moments as well as in the swarming chorus of “God’s Children” that the duo hit their true heights, and those same qualities are the ones most likely to mark this album as an enduring piece of work from two icons of a class that has long since graduated.