Mark Lanegan | Straight Songs of Sorrow | (Heavenly Recordings)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Nobody goes into a Mark Lanegan recording expecting rainbows and unicorns. And a glance at the title of this one implies that it’s no exception.
From his early, and most accessible, years fronting Seattle’s Screaming Trees in the mid-late 80s, Lanegan’s dusky, soulful bellow made even the most insignificant lyrics sound convincing. He has since spent over three decades crafting and perfecting his dark yet resounding attack in a variety of formats. Along the way he became the go-to voice to collaborate with edgy artists. From shadowy folk, tense rock, dark blues, electronic musings and noir pop, Lanegan has worked with a diverse group of acts such as Greg Dulli, Queens of the Stone Age, and Moby among many others. He also released a series of well received albums with singer/songwriter Isobel Campbell from Belle & Sebastian and has about a dozen discs under his own name. Those include seven from a prolific run beginning in 2012.
Still, this is different. We talked to him about it, too.
Each track is linked to a chapter of Lanegan’s recent autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep. That makes this his most personal, intimate, and arguably densely lyrical album yet. All of which is clear on the opening track “I Wouldn’t Want to Say” with its near six minute torrent of spoken words against jittery drums, tingling synths and thick guitar chords. Less a song than an art piece, there isn’t a recognizable structure as he churns through words like a jackhammer breaking up concrete. To say this draws a line in the sand, even for Lanegan fans, is an understatement. The track pushes into avant-garde waters musically as he seems to be reciting stream of consciousness concepts, tossing in the song’s title intermittently.
Things get less hectic from there, but even on the brooding seven minute ballad “Skeleton Key” (“I spent my life trying every way to die”) the listener needs to dive in and absorb the multitude of words, talk/sung like Lou Reed at his most expansive. Lanegan dials down the audio intensity, if not the plentiful words, on the acoustic “Hanging on for DRC” only to follow it with “Burying Ground” which, as its title implies, is particularly gloomy (“I seen things could make a grown man cry….Call for the doctor now I know I’m bound to die”).
Only the most dedicated fan will be able to handle an hour at one sitting of Lanegan expunging his demons as the 15 tracks unspool. He’s led a particularly shadowy life, all reflected in these selections both musically and conceptually. Perhaps reading his story before listening to this sprawling audio representation of it would help untangle some of the thick slabs of words he unleashes.
Regardless, Lanegan revels in his art and poetry and challenges the listener to do the same. It’s not for the squeamish or those looking for concise, structured songs. But established followers will likely get on board and stay there. Others may want to dip their toes to test the temperature before they jump into Lanegan’s choppy, occasionally dissonant but revelatory waters.