Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art?
On Black Lips’ eighth album Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? the Atlanta outfit have descended from the dizzying heights of world-class production and gotten back in the garage. Since their formation in 1999 the group had been pumping out brilliant yet almost unlistenable records until their efforts culminated in 2011 with one of the best garage albums of this decade so far in Arabia Mountain. While the grimy recording quality of the group’s early releases were always part of their charm, Arabia Mountain showed what they were capable of with a disciplined approach and a producer like Mark Ronson at the helm.
The 2014 follow up Underneath the Rainbow also bought the big names into the studio – this time in the form of the Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney. However it was an anticlimactic return for the group and unfortunately it seems with Satan’s Graffiti they might never capture those heights again.
Still, this release is bountiful with all the qualities that fans have long come to love about Black Lips. There are the off-kilter harmonies, the irreverent lyrics, the hedonism, the rag-tag disdain for society as a whole and the irresistible melodies underpinning their circus of ideas.
The group has undergone some radical changes in recent years but it would still take a keen listener to notice. Satan’s Graffiti features only two members – guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley – from their previous record. Long time guitarist Ian Saint Pe and drummer Joe Bradley have left the band and have been replaced respectively with Jack Hines and Oakley Munson. These aren’t all new faces, but the addition of a permanent saxophone player Zumi Rosow caps of the remarkable revision of the line up.
For a band known for their snappy punk numbers this album is a heavy undertaking weighing in at 18 songs and 56 minutes, sprinkling the track list with a series of instrumentally focused ‘interludes’ to give the album some hazy semblance of a structure. The jazzy opener Overture: Sunday Mourning wastes no time in giving Rosow a formal introduction, before Occidental Front kicks at you with its galloping rhythm riding you right back to the days of their 2007 Vice Records debut Good Bad Not Evil. It’s a common recurrence on this record – certain moments remind you of some of the group’s finest tracks but don’t quite hit the same heights. Can’t Hold On features the eastern sounding down-tuned guitar lines of fan favourite Mr Driver, but it’s buried under the raspy vocals rather than carrying the song like the best of their riffs can.
The clean acoustic guitar and plucky piano opening of Crystal Night is a welcome reprieve from the scuzzy opening suite. It’s the most memorable track on the album, feeling like some deranged Christmas carol, somehow combining a chipmunk choir with heavy themes of the holocaust in some bizarre concoction of a song that only Black Lips could pull off. There is such a playfulness in everything Black Lips do that when it at least sounds like they are trying to be sincere it hits the mark just right.
The overt lack of respect for the listener on most of the album however misses this mark more often than not. The opening verse of a track will often have enough charm to draw you in but much of that gets dissipated as the song drags on for over four minutes. Squatting in Heaven and Interlude: Bongos Baby felt like the filler in the mix while even the catchiest tracks like Wayne feel too repetitive to go the distance.
Then again, there’s barely a track on the record that doesn’t have its moments. Interlude: Got Me All Alone draws you in with its saxophone swing and Link Ray sway at times sounding like Tom Waits in a dope-soaked speakeasy. Rebel Intuition sounds like John Lydon reworking Folsom Prison Blues while Loser’s Lament has the timeless quality of an acoustic favourite for drifters around a homely trash-fire.
Despite the irreverent approach, there is more musical scope and variety on this record than anything Black Lips have done before. But it feels wider rather than deeper and there doesn’t seem to be a theme to tie it all together. While it might have been equally arduous seeing the group continue down the path to the mainstream it appears this album is a clear step back to their roots. Fans will enjoy much of this record but it’s certainly not an entry point for anyone not won over by them already. Still, Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? is a triumph of endurance and longevity for Black Lips, with a revised line-up returning to some familiar formulas for the sake of tinkering with new ideas to move forward with.