The partnership between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan came out of nowhere in 2004. The former member of Scotland’s face of twee-indie, Belle & Sebastian, coupling with the gravel-voiced former lead singer of the Screaming Trees, left journos scrambling for new ways to describe them as an unlikely pairing; when reviewing their full length debut, ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas’.
The 2006 release is the first of three albums the pair would record together and, while the later albums were slicker and possessed more obvious stand-out tracks, ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas’, still stands out above the others.
From the opener, it is clear how the pair’s vocals complement each other. ‘Deus Ibi Est’ is a driving acoustic guitar ballad sung by Lanegan’s road-hardened voice and, in the chorus, haunted by Campbell’s ethereal vocals singing a refrain from the hymn ‘Ubi Charitas’ -“Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” which, translated from Latin means — “Where there is tender love; God is present.”
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As chief songwriter, Campbell likes to use Christian iconography and staples of traditional folk storytelling, thereby injecting mystic, often dark, subject matter that adds to the creepy intrigue the album regularly evokes.
The pair occasionally sing as a traditional duet but more often sound like two distinct characters in a story. For example, on ‘The False Husband’ Campbell sounds like a spirit, jangling on Lanegan’s conscience, rather than a singer he’s harmonising with. A feeling that is heightened by the accompaniment of near-screeching fiddles and accentuated kick-drum thumps.
Campbell wears her lyrical influences on her sleeve and this album features many doths of the cap to Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. While Lanegan, an established songwriter himself, does contribute Revolver to this album, the partnership isn’t the traditional 50/50 collaboration you might expect.
Campbell summed up their professional relationship, in a 2010 interview with Pitchfork, when she said – “It’s my baby, and he sings what he wants. The songs that he likes, he sings. The songs he doesn’t feel he can contribute to, he doesn’t.”
Lanegan takes the lead on their sassy cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Ramblin Man’ and plays along with the cute ballad, ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ But their vocal partnership works best in the Dusty Springfield inspired duet, ‘Honey Child What Can I Do’,
While the album doesn’t reach any great heights, it is consistently intriguing throughout its forty minute life and comes to a satisfying end when Lanegan’s baritone voice rambles redemptively through ‘The Circus Is Leaving Town’.
‘Ballad of Broken Seas’ is full of well-crafted songs with haunting folk textures and seems to float adjacent to music trends of the mid-2000s. So, while the album doesn’t feature any “oh, this is so 2006” moments, it has a timeless quality that makes it sound as compelling today as it did a decade ago.