Review Summary: An overlooked masterpiece, an album that demands to be heard.
By now, Mark Lanegan has more than established himself as an iconic figure in music. Having fronted one of Seattle's pioneering and most underrated 'grunge' outlets, the psychedelic and punk hybrid of Screaming Trees, he later on had a chance to collaborate alongside names such as Queens Of The Stone Age, Isobel Campbell from Belle And Sebastian, Afghan Whigs vocalist Greg Dulli, or the incredible Mad Season. All the while having built an impressive solo discography. His instantly recognizable baritone voice, soaked in alcohol and cigarrettes, as well as his sorrowful, incredible songwriting skills, are his bread and butter, which he has been putting to great use for almost 30 years now... So the question remains. How, after so long, can he still be so often overlooked? It just seems he's never received nearly as much recognition as he so clearly deserves. His seminal 1994 album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost
more than proves that.
Lanegan's second solo release sees him continuing to depart from his usual sound as Screaming Trees' frontman, as he had begun doing 4 years before. Here, there's a much more delicate, intricate acoustic instrumentation. The addition of organs, violins, saxophones, and pianos contributes to a much more somber and intimate musical experience, allowing his addictively sinister vocal register and bleak songwriting to truly shine, as he continues to develop upon his solo debut's dark blues sound to truly fantastic results. What we have here, then, is one of Lanegan's greatest musical achievements, a stripped down, massive statement from a much more mature and improved artist that apparently just slipped under everyone's radar. Despite his notorious substance abuse problems, which delayed and prolongued recording sessions for almost a year, all of Whiskey For The Holy Ghost
sounds incredibly cohesive, a feat hard to achieve.
Perhaps, the most enduring quality about the album is that nearly every song is excellent individually, but listened to as a unit they create an even more amazing experience. "The River Rise" may well feature one of Lanegan's most emotional vocal deliveries, his sorrowful but gentle touch on the chorus, complimented beautifully by the delicate acoustic guitars in the background, can almost bring a tear to the listener's eye. In fact, it's impressive to notice how well every instrument here can blend in alongside his voice so well, almost effortlessly. The saxophones on the eerily hopeful "Sunrise" are delicious, as is the splendid violin outro on the seemingly more upbeat "Carnival", one of the many standouts. But the haunting acoustic and (less prominently) electric guitars are able to fit in just as well, adding an incredible balance. The dirty blues riff that gives way to "Borracho", which sees Lanegan chronicling his alcohol abuse and emotional struggle, wouldn't sound out of place at all in Screaming Trees' excellent Buzz Factory
, the mournful acoustic soloing on "House A Home" adds to his tales of the misfortunes of love incredibly, as does the gentle fingerpicking on "Shooting Gallery", the tender strumming on the slightly more playful "El Sol", or the sinister riffs of "Dead On You" and "Pendulum". Every instrument sounds almost perfectly placed, and yet they manage not to overpower Lanegan, who delivers some of his most memorable performances here.
The album centerpieces "Riding The Nightingale" and "Beggar's Blues" just seem to encompass all that makes the album such a rewarding listening experience. The female backing vocals that join Lanegan so beautifully in the final moments of the former, or the guitars that duel him in the latter simply fall in place at the right time, providing the perfect setting for him at all times. It really is hard to point out any flaws in Whiskey For The Holy Ghost
. Maybe the slow "Kingdoms Of Rain", despite featuring a strong outro, and the short interlude "Judas Touch" are not as essential as the greater tracks here clearly are. That's really all one could think of. This album demands to be heard, words just don't seem to do it enough justice. One could sing along to just about every classic line Lanegan hands out here, or any instrumental hook. Here, we find Mark Lanegan at a creative best, that would prove to capitalise hugely on Screaming Trees' 1996 opus Dust
, and would lead to a continuation of an impressive career.