I’m really big into restraint at the moment. Not in a safeword and shackles type of way, honest, but in terms of the tension and joy that can be wrung from a deliberately delayed release and a big pay off … okay, that sounds far, far worse I admit it! Damn I’ve blown my big intro, here’s Mark Lanegan No Bells On Sunday; a 5 track EP released in 2014 before his Phantom Radio LP.
In fact that line above should read ‘a 5 track EP released before his much inferior Phantom Radio LP’. When I was feeling a bit let down and despondent about it no less a Lanegan-a-Man than our very own Jim Resurrection hipped me to the existence of No Bells On Sunday, telling me it was much better and you know what reader? he was right**.
First off I will just come right out and say it, track 4 of No Bells On Sunday, ‘Jonas Pap’ is a right load of cack that is unworthy of Mr Lanegan’s name, I’ve only ever listened to it twice and we’ll say no more about it. Ever. Now the positives.
No Bells On Sunday glides into being on the slow jets of ‘Dry Iced’. It is a song that just starts at the level of the sublime and then goes all the way up to, umm, err, sublime+3. The instrumentation is sparse, the beat is quietly, subtly insistent and then, as it should, everything makes way for the best voice in rock – that chocolate cake rich baritone, a voice that carries with it such instant heft and gravitas that it’s a voice I find myself feeling rather than hearing.
‘Dry Iced’ comes on like a late night travelogue through shrouded streets of sin and shame, that death’s-head voice borne aloft on the beat, the track is a more timid cousin of Lanegan’s barn-storming ‘Ode To Sad Disco’ on his previous LP Blues Funeral^. The effect of the whole is effortlessly cool.
The title track is up next and is even better, we’re probably cruising at sublime+4 now. As all Lanegan’s best songs seem to ‘No Bells On Sunday’ reeks of angst and chemical regret to a point just north of self-parody. I love how he sings this one slowly and in a slightly higher register until he hits the lines ‘No bells on Sunday / No wings to fly’, where he just twists the throttle, just ever so slightly and some real feeling breaks through the numbness. Subtle, masterful, restrained*^.
Side 2 opener ‘Sad Lover’ is the rockingest beast on No Bells On Sunday, complete with some hard-hitting drums from Jean-Philippe De Gheest and some smart, insistent guitars from Alain Johannes and Aldo Struyf. It never fails to make me smile despite, or because of the overly dramatic lyrics, ‘I hate when the red sun goes down / And burns lonely shadows into the pavement’. And the bit where Lanegan just says ‘alright‘ after the chorus, letting the guitars loose is worth the price of this EP alone, trust me.
Closer ‘Smokestack Magic’ is a 8-minute grower of a tune. There is a sense of it developing and coalescing before your very ears, it starts almost tentatively before it strides off into the distance. There’s a touch of the arty Bowies about it too, some off-kilter melodies and dissonance that steer us on over to Heroes strasse.
All in all I do like a mini-LP and Mark Lanegan has a history of doing these well, No Bells On Sunday is a 80% excellent one, the sound of an artist progressing and adding new elements to his music to avoid becoming stale. It bloody works too, which is more the point. Dark Mark near his very best:
Now the vanishing’s begun
When drowning late at night
The blown glass setting sun
Weeps electric light
Nurse, the restraints!
*or, Bells End Saturday.
**it was sodding expensive though.
^to my mind, sometimes his best ever tune and certainly his first overtly electronic based one in his solo work. Love it!
*^very much like my own writing; I can pay this tune no higher accolade.