Rob Marshall is Humanist, an English singer/songwriter/rocker/producer, and this is his début album under this name. It is an exploration of the darker places, the shadowy corners. It is borne out of a mixture of industrial and rock. It is excellent.
Marshall works with a whole host of vocalists here, he has called in the heavyweights. Mark Lanegan appears on three tracks, Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode is here, Mark Gardner of Ride, too. So is Ron Sexsmith, and Carl Hancock Rux, who has worked with Portishead. And more as well. The central theme of the album is grief, and Marshall gave each of his vocalists the music and a title, and the rest was up to them. And so, we get all these individualized takes on grief and the process surrounding it across the album’s 15 songs.
One of the strengths of Humanist is that while the overall sound of the album is tight and cohesive, the music he wrote for each singer is evocative of that singer’s career.
We start off with Lanegan, who is one of my favourite artists. He takes the first two tracks, plus one in the middle, and the last one as well. Given his legend for collaboration, it should not be surprising to learn that Lanegan was the first of Marshall’s desired collaborators to respond, and they bonded almost instantly. This was back in 2015 or 2016, and out of this partnership came a half dozen or so tracks on Lanegan’s dark and menacing 2017 album, Gargoyle, and he also has a half dozen song-writing credits on Lanegan’s most recent album, Somebody’s Knocking. What appears on Humanist is the first tracks over which Marshall and Lanegan bonded.
‘Beast of the Nation’ is my favourite of his contributions. It is remarkable to think of Lanegan’s career, which he begun nearly 35 yeas ago with the Screaming Trees, who eventually became bunched in with the Seattle grunge scene, though they were always more rocked out and psychedaelic. Even before the Trees ran their course, Lanegan had released a couple of solo albums on Sub Pop, largely acoustic, featuring muted instrumentation and his growl. But since then, through a billion collaborations with everyone from Greg Dulli to Queens of the Stone Age to Isobel Campbell, and in his solo work, he has returned to a grittier, heavier sound, heavily indebted to post-punk, with the exception of his brilliant work with Duke Garwood. Lanegan is a singular vocalist, and yet, he can sound at home on nearly anything. And here, on ‘Beast,’ Marshall gives him perhaps the perfect platform. Centred around a pounding, metallic beat, with shimmery guitars, Lanegan does his thing, which no one else can do: ‘I took a train to nowhere/Nowhere is place I’m gonna be.’
And so Lanegan sets the tone for the album, then. And he turns it over to Dave Gahan, who has obviously had a massive impact on Lanegan himself, as he was doing what Lanegan does long before Lanegan. His track, ‘Shock Collar,’ gives him the opportunity to work in perhaps the heaviest milieu he ever has, and yet, as heavy and industrial-sounding as the track is, Gahan owns it. His voice, matured into a smooth and silky one, is instantly recognizable.
Madman Butterfly takes the next track, the brooding and moody ‘Lie Down,’ and I have to say this is one of my favourite tracks. John Robb’s ‘English Ghosts’ is centred around a wicked post-punk bassline, and an almost processed drum beat that recalls early Public Image Ltd., and here the Membranes’ frontman seethes, his voice muted, buried in the mix, and menacing as a guitar occasionally squawks across the bass and drums.
Mark Gardener’s turn helming ‘When the Lights Go Out’ is another track that sounds like it could come from his regular band, Ride, and yet sounds just different enough to both fit the rest of Humanist and give him a new sound. With soaring, Ride-like guitars, an industrial beat, and a throbbing bass line, Gardener delivers his trademark stoned, shoegazer vocals. This track is a highlight. I also find myself wondering about the influence of the work Gardener did with Marshall on the most recent Ride album, This is Not a Safe Place.
Carl Hancock Rux and Joel Cadbury of UNKLE appear on ‘Mortal Eyes,’ which is, I think, my favourite track at present. With a pulsating beat, Rux lays out a spoken word bit, slightly menacing, and strong. An electric guitar is muted in the background, and the bass is structured around the beat. This track is the shit.
Ilse Maria helms the microphone on ‘Truly Too Late,’ the only woman on the album, which is a bit of a bummer, because her voice fits the music beautifully, but it also adds a bit of a shimmer and a different sound to the album, as compared to the rest. Here, she and Marshall channel the Cocteau Twins to great effect. Perhaps the most surprising appearance here comes from Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith, a guy I kinda came of age listening to back home in Canada, but haven’t really thought about in close to fifteen years. ‘How’re You Holding Up’ is the most muted, and next to Ilse Maria’s, the most beautiful track. His voice is warm and gentle, as gentle and warm as Marshall’s music. I imagine Sexsmith’s character here singing to his ex-wife, who has up and moved away, and he’s talking about the grief of their breakup (‘it seems like it’s been days/since we went our separate ways’), especially as he builds to the chorus:
It seems like it’s been years
Our dreams have up and disappeared
How’re you holding up out there?
How’re you holding up my dearest friend?
On the whole, this is the music for our times. We are all grieving, whether it’s over politics, the environment, our shattered hopes and dreams. Rob Marshall has built music for our times, and I find myself thinking about Sam Elliott’s introduction to The Dude, in the Big Lebowski about something being the thing for its time and place.
Humanist is out tomorrow on Ignition Records wherever you get your music.