When my editors asked me to pair beers with Mark Lanegan’s new album, Phantom Radio, I initially resisted. Not that I don’t love Lanegan; and, not that I didn’t want a free copy of the Screaming Trees ex-frontman’s new album; because, I do and I did (I got that free copy … thank you editors and Lanegan’s publicist). But, there is a darkness that runs deep in Lanegan, and, for me at least, beer doesn’t match well with that. Beer is comfortable. Beer is friendly. For me, at least, beer doesn’t pair well with the dark recesses of an artist still attempting to reconcile his need to express his voice and confess his sins with his desire to hide from the audience whose adoration he resists and from whom he seeks atonement. Or, so I thought.
As I continued to listen and mull over the inventive, yet grounded, Phantom Radio, Lanegan’s voice combined with his lyrics began to ring of deep, dark malts to me. But, not just any dark malts. There is no way that a Milk Stout pairs well with this album. Most Porters are too comforting and familiar to make a good match with the songs from Phantom Radio. And, many of the Stouts on the market, though deep, are deeply rich and speak to log fires, pleasant contemplation (if not pleasant conversation), and deep joy. No, Phantom Radio needs to be paired with dark beers that have an unsettlingly yet dangerously appealing edge within their swirling, mysterious, dark malts. Pairing beers with Phantom Radio was challenging, but Mark Lanegan’s latest album is deserving of the effort.
I will only be pairing beers with six tracks from the album. Two reasons: six beers is a good number, obviously; and, I don’t want you to have to read three thousand plus words before you begin enjoying Phantom Radio paired with beers. Oh, and if you’re worried about paying for this much craft beer, good friends will pitch in to help pay for the beer.
“Judgement Time” – Lanegan’s faltering, travel-broken voice breaks through the top of the song and never loses its desperately resigned grip. Obviously, a song titled “Judgement Time” is probably going to have a somber tone, but what sticks out about this song is that the lament’s deep fatalistic tone has a true resignation that nihilists in their twenties can only feign.
Drinking more than two of an Imperial Stout that boasts an 11.8% abv may bring about a different kind of judgment than Lanegan sings about, but, after a certain point, judgment is judgement. With pitch black exoticness, Utah’s Epic Brewing Company Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout calls down judgment on its parishioners. “Judgment Time” is the second track on Phantom Radio, but being the first song to pair beer with, be cautious when pairing the Big Bad Baptist with “Judgement Time” – you want to at least make it through the entire album before feeling compelled to compose your own lament.
“Floor of the Ocean” – An intentionally odd song, “Floor of the Ocean” is Lanegan’s biography if Lanegan had employed Bret Easton Ellis to write it. The lyrics seem voyeuristic, and tonally the song, at first listen, appears musically anachronistic. On subsequent listens, the key changes and droning synths began to mimic the dirty voyeurism of the listener.
Chimay’s Grande Réserve (Blue Cap) is complex beer that has a fruit sweetness to it that can mask the maturity of the beer if the drinker isn’t paying attention. Ideally, when pairing “Floor of the Ocean” with this Belgian Strong Dark Ale, you’ll have an aged bottle of the Chimay Grande Réserve on hand. Since most won’t have access to an aged bottle, buy at least two bottles, pair one with the song immediately (or in the very near future), and cellar at least one bottle for five years. Five years later, you’ll have the distinct pleasure of seeing how well both the beer and the album have aged.
“I Am the Wolf” – The most Americana and troubadour-type song on Phantom Radio, “I Am the Wolf” continues Lanegan’s confessional biography. I love his voice, and Lanegan seems most comfortable when not being cluttered with music – his crackling vocals and a guitar go well together.
Lanegan sings, “I am wolf/without a pack/banished so long ago.” I’m not entirely sure, and I want to be careful about over-speculating, but, as a 90’s rock hero, Lanegan was never comfortable with his renown nor his place in the grunge pantheon; if I had to guess, those lyrics speak to his place in the music industry. He continues to sing, “I’ve survived on another’s kill/and on my shadow home.” Over the years, Lanegan has been open about his demons of drugs, alcohol, and past collaborations, and, although never comfortable with success, it’s hard not to get the impression that he’s not only running from his demons, but hoping for some sort of salvation offered at the hands of his fans. A wolf without a pack isn’t much of a wolf.
In the world of craft beer, Porters are often disdained. Porters are gateways to Stouts, and true beer drinkers drink Stouts. Considering the lofty place that Porters occupy in the history of beer, this is unfortunate. Of course, many of the Porters on the market don’t help matters. Normally, when I drink a Porter, I, too, am thinking “why didn’t I get a Stout?” Thankfully there are a few Porters that challenge the style’s modern reputation, and one that will go well with a song about being “banished so long ago” is the London Porter from Meantime Brewing Company.
“Torn Red Heart” – A self-deprecating song about the futility of loving someone as unlovable as the himself, Lanegan, within that context, admits that he wonders, “would love be my saving grace?” An anti-love song that wants to be a love song and that’s ultimately about the longing for salvation.
Now, in the intro I impugned Milk Stouts, and, in fact, I clearly stated that “there is no way that a Milk Stout pairs well with Phantom Radio.” I stand by that claim, with a caveat – some Milk Stouts pair well with this specific song, but not the rest of the album. To be fair, I fought this pairing for almost a day. I knew immediately that “Torn Red Heart” is best enjoyed while drinking a Milk Stout, but I shouted myself down and originally paired this song with another style. But, I couldn’t get away from it. A day later, when I finally allowed myself to accept that “Torn Red Heart” demands a Milk Stout, I considered choosing a different track. In the end, I decided that the written contradiction between this article’s introduction and this pairing reflects the contradictory turmoil of Lanegan as he simultaneously seeks attention while running from it.
Milk Stouts were originally developed for the elderly, sick, and nursing mothers. The added lactose gives the beer an extra sweetness that makes it more palatable to more “sensitive” tastes, and it adds calories and nutrients needed by the elderly, sick, and nursing mothers. Of course, in 2014, most of who live in the West don’t drink beer for its medicinal or nutritional properties (if your buddy says that he does, he’s simply trying to justify the fact that he drinks a six pack every evening). In Milk Stouts there is a juxtaposition of lactose sweetness with the more traditional Stout flavors built on roasted barley – this pairs well with a love song that masks itself as an anti-love song. So, while listening to “Torn Red Heart,” enjoy the Milk Stout Nitro from Left Hand Brewing Company – possibly the best Milk Stout on the market.
“Waltzing in Blue” – After “Torn Red Heart,” Phantom Radio gets back on track with “Waltzing in Blue.” A beautifully rendered, 90s-era reminiscent, anti-love song, Lanegan’s wails are disconcerting. Muted by electronic droning, Lanegan’s voice sounds more constant on “Waltzing in Blue” than it does on the rest of Phantom Radio. The leveling out of the emotive honesty in his leather-hardened voice creates the eeriness that gives this anti-love song a gravitas that most navel-gazing lacks.
American Black Ales is a style that many people don’t drink (or even know about, for that matter), but American Black Ales offer a combination of the best of old world malts and interesting flavor notes that we new world people expect. The duality of the beer reflects the duality of a song’s musicality that seemingly irons out the singer’s vocal uniqueness, but, by doing so, creates an unexpected level of complexity. An excellent example that makes a great pairing with “Waltzing in Blue” is Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Night Time Ale.
“The Wild People” – I wish that “The Wild People” was the final track on the album. The final track, “Death Trip to Tulsa” is a fine song, but it belongs somewhere in the middle of the album. “The Wild People,” however, besides being one of my favorite tracks on Phantom Radio, would make a great final book-end on a mostly excellent album. Lanegan’s voice has the ability to tell stories, and that hard-earned talent is on full display in “The Wild People.” Like the strongest songs on the album, “The Wild People” is a sparse track allowing that wonderful voice full reign.
Having paired other songs from other albums with this beer, I tried as hard as I could to get my brain off of North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. But, my brain refused, and I finally recognized that I agree with my brain. There are very few beers of any style that allow the best about the respective styles to shine without tricks as does Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. As solid a Stout, including its complexity (drink the beer, that seeming contradiction will make sense), as can been found, no other beer deserves to be paired with “The Wild People” as does North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.
So, six beers to go with six songs from off of an album that will unfortunately be overlooked by many people. If you’re a Mark Lanegan fan, and you’ve been trying to convert your friends, why not invite them over for an album and beer pairing party with Phantom Radio?