Mark Lanegan Plunges Into Dark, Dramatic Depths With ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’
Before and after the phenomenon known as grunge came and went, there were sounds that spawned and sustained, spreading the seeds of frenzied, fertile scenes, and outlasting them grandly. Among the heroes in this realm is Mark Lanegan, who arrived at the scene as frontman of psychedelic outfit Screaming Trees, embarked on a solo career beginning with 1990’s “The Winding Sheet,” and has collaborated with such varied artists as Kurt Cobain, Queens of the Stone Age, Martina Topley-Bird, and Unkle. Lanegan releases his twelfth solo album, “Straight Songs of Sorrow,” in tandem with a memoir, “Sing Backwards and Weep,” recounting his drug-addled days in ‘90s Seattle. It’s a sordid story, abounding with gruesome detail, with the moribund character finding unlikely salvation at the cusp of the millenium. Enlisting a roster of illustrious guest musicians, Lanegan visits scenes and characters from the book, some more loosely than others, in a set of thoroughly unnerving, expressive songs that effectively capture his personal narrative in all its dark depth.
Opener “I Wouldn’t Want to Say” begins with a noisy electronic clatter. Lanegan’s earthy, sonorous voice tones seems out of place, lending an avant garde quality to the sound, with the music at war with the words Lanegan sings about guilt, doom, lost love, and nebulous darkness over static and rattle, around a central drone that simultaneously invites and alienates. He has described this song as encapsulating the whole story contained in his novel, and as such, it serves as an effective statement of intent, a snapshot of a journey “from death… to revival.” From the onset, it is clear this is going to be a macabre affair, even if revival is the ultimate outcome. With the stage set, Lanegan goes on to shift in and out of various moods, all the while maintaining a decidedly dark ambiance. “Apples From a Tree” is short and sweet, with intricate fingerpicking courtesy of Lamb Of God’s Mark Morton, and lyrics about lost love that give way to repeated insistence of going away for good, a recurrent theme, delivered in a calm demeanor that defies its gravity.
“This Game of Love” matches Lanegan with his wife Shelley Brien for a Rita Coolidge/Kris Kristofferson-style ballad. In an album that abounds with lamentations of loneliness, this stands out as a celebration of love, albeit an uncertain one, as the two ask, “Am I gonna lose this game of love?” Lanegan’s voice sounds fractured, Brien’s a bit more composed, and the two complete each other over a tenuous, rattling beat that barely trudges along, with hazy strings hovering around their joint vocal, as if sublimating the harmonic union. “Ketamine” finds Lanegan up-front and unthreateningly folksy, yet weary, singing downright abysmal lyrics over a plodding, ominous background, By the end, he has taken on a chilling, croaky voice to sing of all the evil he’s capable of, asking for ketamine to save him from his own wicked instincts. “Bleed All Over” is spooky in a somewhat more playful way, with a catchy tune that strikes a new wave nerve carried by strummed guitar and eerie synth melodies that evoke vampire theatrics. Lanegan stands out in that he is not afraid to sound creepy; in fact he goes out of his way to do so, and is able to strike a chord that few even come close to. He sings, “Baby, baby, baby / I’m a bleed all over,” with a theatricality to send shivers.
“Churchbells, Ghosts” is a fragile, piano-led number that calls for a coordinated reading, as it describes Lanegan’s life on the road, wandering city streets, and finding himself indifferent places as “an aging hustler” and “a wounded Atlas.” “Internal Hourglass Discussion” is a thrillingly jagged, off-kilter hodgepodge of sounds, with gritty, dronning synth bass, a dancey hi hat-heavy pulse, a warbled mess of ringing, discordant tones, and Lanegan’s haggard voice lazily coloring outside the lines of a melody, climaxing in a deranged refrain of “All on this beautiful day.” On “Stockholm City Blues,” banjo and strings make for a sound at once grounded and celestial, as Lanegan runs through numerous references to narcotics, chasing dragons in a waning struggle between body and mind to expire at the other’s expense. “Skeleton Key” is another expressive droney soundscape, a bit like “Venus In Furs”-era Velvet Underground, with quivering bending notes that hover in a murky haze, and Lanegan’s scratchy, wounded voice declaring, “I’m so very ugly,” and rivaling the creepiness of “All Over” as he implores, “Love me.” The titular line of the album occurs here as he beckons, “Follow me down / To the underground / And I will sing to you a song of sorrow” in true horrorshow style.
The doom and gloom continues as Lanegan depicts factory smoke, rain, and spiders, and sends various people off to heaven, one verse at a time, over heavenly choirs and ringing, distorted guitars on “Daylight In the Nocturnal House.” “Ballad of the Dying Rover,” a haunting, cinematic standout, brings arresting textures and synth fuzz that evades focus. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones plays Mellotron, and the band create whirlwinds of sound that blend into a brooding, vibrating, resonant haze. Over this murky backdrop, Lanegan takes the creep factor to its furthest yet, repeating, “Let me lay down with you… I’m just a man / A sick, sick man.” “Hanging On (For DRC)” finds Mark Morton back at the guitar, trickling away with a devilishly comforting way about him. One of the lighter songs of the set, this is an ode to Lanegan’s friend Dylan Carlson of drone metal outfit Earth. Lanegan sings in awe of the fact that the two friends have somehow survived in spite of all odds. The ramshackle recording of “Burying Ground” captures a ghostly spirit clinging on with a tenuous grip. Skeletal tremolo guitars trail off in echoes, as Lanegan boasts, taunts, and declares with conviction that he is headed to the burying ground.
“At Zero Below” enlists Greg Dulli, Lanegan’s bandmate from the Gutter Twins, on vocals, as well as Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds on the indispensable role of fiddler. A derelict stomp brings us back to the cooky campfire aesthetic, and Lanegan’s lyrics get especially moribund, as he sings, She said / ‘You’ll lay there bleeding like a dog.’” As hellish as this all may seem, Lanegan insists his memoir has a happy ending, and has taken trouble to convey it in the concluding track, “Eden Lost and Found.” The fact that this song too sounds considerably haunted might simply be testament to the focus of Lanegan’s aesthetic vision. To end on a positive note, Lanegan invites his favorite singer, Simon Bonney of Crime & The City Solution, to trade lines in a tortured blues back-and-forth, over a central organ figure and strings. Hinting at an ultimate transcendence, they sing, “Daylight is calling me / And everybody got to be free.”
“Straight Songs of Sorrow” is an appropriate title for this record, although a rather mild one, as the sorrow comes along with terror and plenty more. The songs betray evil, mourn loss, court death, beg for mercy, and rejoice only in the shadows of this clamor. This is the stuff of Baudelairian goth, resurrected in a rare blend of twisted folk freakshow aesthetics. Lanegan revisits sounds he employed throughout his career, with the psychedelic grunge elements always at hand, along with an effective balance of both rustic tendencies and electronic explorations. What stands out above all about the album is how mercilessly dark it all is. The unprecedentedly personal nature of Lanegan’s memoir seems to have unlocked a new depth of expression, as the combination of haunting lyrics and chillingly vivid soundscapes that he creates leave a lasting impact.
“Straight Songs of Sorrow” is available May 8 on Apple Music.