Review Summary: Mark laying his demons to rest...
There is a big difference between the Mark Lanegan we know today and the grunge pioneering rock star he was in the late 1980s and ‘90s. The reckless lifestyle he led was a downward spiral that almost got him killed. Against all odds, the ex-Screaming Trees front man managed to move on without further damaging relapses. He ultimately decided to leave the Seattle scene behind and build a brand new life in California. While this complete detachment helped, Mark remained with some insecurities regarding his career. Multiple contributions followed in the ‘00s, most notably as part of Queens of the Stone Age, The Gutter Twins (with Greg Dulli), Soulsavers, as well as 3 collaborative full lengths with Isobel Campbell. These kept the flame inside alive until Alain Johannes convinced him to give it another shot at his solo career. Blues Funeral
was born out of the respective sessions and became his most accomplished collection of songs so far. The album introduced prominent electronic elements too, gradually growing in significance over the past decade. Straight Songs of Sorrow
is the result of painstakingly compiling his memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep
. The book summarizes the first half of Lanegan’s troubled life, so these tunes reveal a fair number of low moments. Nevertheless, a small dose of black humor can be found in the lyrics, balancing things a bit.
It helps to read the book in order to truly immerse yourself in Mark’s universe, still, this record does a great job in describing the insecurities, lack of control, stubbornness, nihilism, anxiety and depression of a drug addict. Musically, Straight Songs of Sorrow
blends the ‘80s-inspired, electronic structures that we heard on last year’s Somebody’s Knocking
with contrasting acoustic piano and folksy bits predominant of his early solo career. It is an interesting mix, one that leaves aside rocking guitars and powerful drums. ‘I Wouldn’t Want to Say’ starts promising with a "mechanical" pattern droning throughout. Washes of noise join in towards the end, as well as some interesting, 8-bit-like leads. Then, ‘Churchbells, Ghosts’ comes across as a sequel to the preceding LP’s closing cut, ‘Two Bells Ringing at Once’. The pulsing keys and piano leads create a warm foundation for the vocalist’s bruised croon, whereas ‘Internal Hourglass Discussion’ boasts a post-punk-ish drum beat and atmospheric, slightly paranoid synth pads. It’s not something you would associate with Lanegan, yet it’s just another sonic door opened that seems to fit him. Moreover, album highlight and centerpiece, ‘Skeleton Key’ shares a mournful rhythm with majestic progressions. The ominous reverb and echo intentionally drench to create that murk, similar to a vintage recording that lost some of its audio quality. This overall sound is suitable for such confessions, yet, at times, you can’t help but feel the music is simply a background to the man’s storytelling.
On the other side, there are the acoustic ditties which occasionally hit you hard. The bluesy, banjo picked chords found on ‘Daylight in the Nocturnal House’ are gorgeous and touching. Mark’s voice is perfect for these moments and the background hums over lap steel touches are a brilliant addition in this context. This is one of his most compelling folk cuts so far. The sparse, Duke Garwood-esque song, ‘Stockholm City Blues’ gently talks about how can life end up revolving around the next fix or how pathetic one becomes for it. Meanwhile, ‘Ketamine’ evokes a darker vibe where he sings as if drained out. ‘At Zero Below’ continues his rock bottom encounters with wailing violin leads and an unexpected, slightly bossa nova beat. It's a wonder how many times Lanegan circled around death, yet somehow avoid meeting it. In fact, the whole album inevitably revolves around it. At the same time, I appreciate the decision to diversify the output, so these humble experiments are welcomed.
I must admit I questioned at some point the amount of autobiographic content Mark's lyrics. On Straight Songs of Sorrow
I received more than I wanted to. This must be an honest depiction of hitting rock bottom and living in that state for years, just swinging on that thin rope constantly. In a weird way, there is a painful monotony in that chaotic life and frankly, he succeeded in portraying it. It’s like being sucked in a vacuum and barely manage to see the light again. Despite these inconveniences, you try to get by and crack a smile every once in a while. I admire this persistence and am happy to see the man alive and well these days. Musically, however, the record unfortunately packs a bit too much for its own good. There are moments where the experiments click, but during the second half the tunes just blend together, killing some of the build-ups and tension created. Trimming would have helped, still, a portion of his fan base might have asked for this full retreat into darkness for quite a number of years now. It’s ironic how Lanegan’s most tumultuous experience came wrapped in one of the most toned down collections of songs so far. Also, the difficulties of relating to these stories refrain the LP from becoming one of the strongest in the catalog.