In his essay on David Lynch's film Lost Highway, David Foster Wallace attempts to define the term "Lynchian". However, he eventually concedes that it's "one of those Potter Stewart-type words that's definable only ostensively - ie, we know it when we see it." Walking into the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles this week to view a photographic exhibit called Dark Night of the Soul, I knew I had entered a Lynchian realm - there was no other human being in sight, moody music emanated from an invisible stereo, and an assortment of strikingly disparate photos - some horrifying, some banal - were hanging from the wall. Yes, Lynch himself was responsible for the photos, but this time around the brilliant and notorious filmmaker accomplished the Lynchian vibe with a little help from his friends.
Dark Night of the Soul is the product of a prominent multimedia creative partnership between the music producer Danger Mouse (best-known as one half of Gnarls Barkley), Mark Linkous (aka Sparklehorse), and David Lynch. Along with a dozen musical collaborators - including Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, Black Francis of The Pixies, and Iggy Pop - Danger Mouse and Linkous composed and produced a mysterious and noirish album, equal parts punk, folk and psychedelia, that they thought redolent of such labyrinthine Lynch films as Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
Sparklehorse's music offers shades of rustic Americana mingled with electronics, and over the past decade has become a staple of Los Angeles's Morning Becomes Eclectic radio programme. The most productive phase of the band's career arrived a couple of years after a near-death experience that Linkous had while touring with Radiohead in Europe. Seeking a visual interpretation for Linkous's mournful melodies, as performed by a disparate array of vocalists, Danger Mouse contacted Lynch, who quickly agreed to the project, and even sang on two of the album's tracks.
His photographs, shot over a two-day period in Los Angeles, offer a panoramic view of the album's soundscape. They revisit the usual Lynchian themes of murder, madness and suburban dysfunction. Some of the photos, like one featuring an oversized human head (with a five-o'-clock shadow) placed on a dinner table, project a touch of the surreal. A few shots look like documentary footage, while others resemble the American photographer Gregory Crewdson's elaborately set-designed productions. Groups of images are arranged to correspond to specific songs, in mood if not in subject matter.
Lynch has no qualms about working outside the confines of the cinema. A consummate interdisciplinarian, he has collaborated on a musical play, recorded a rock album, painted pictures, designed his own website, written a popular book about meditation, and produces a daily weather report for LA county. (Anyone who attempts to replicate Lynch's quinoa recipe from the Inland Empire DVD will also testify to the man's culinary skills.) What makes Dark Night of the Soul so unique is that it finds the artist participating in somebody else's act of homage. The album was recorded as a sort of score to a Lynch movie that doesn't yet exist; Lynch then filled in the blanks by creating work inspired by the homage.
Danger Mouse has quickly made a career of this sort of open-source collaboration. He first rose to prominence with 2004's The Grey Album, a mash-up of The Beatles' "White Album" with Jay-Z's "Black Album." (A cappella Jay-Z performances were coupled with instrumentals from The Beatles' album.) The record label EMI, which holds the copyright to The Beatles' music, attempted to prevent the distribution of the record, and in response protesters posted the album as a free internet download; on one day, 100,000 free copies were downloaded.
In what sounds like a strange coincidence, EMI has also successfully blocked the release of the Dark Night of the Soul album. At this point, the only legal way to hear the record is at the Michael Kohn Gallery. The source of the EMI/Danger Mouse conflict remains somewhat vague, but Danger Mouse fears a lawsuit if he attempts to release the music commercially. As it stands now, those who purchase Lynch's book of photographs (a 5,000-copy limited edition is now on sale) also receive a blank CDR that contains no music.
Despite its bluntly unimaginative title, Dark Night of the Soul is a bold exercise in paradox: both a high-gloss gallery event and a piece of guerrilla art, an original work and a homage, a blank CD and an embarrassment of musical riches, and a collaboration that highlights the singular (and separate) strengths of three artists.