On “Deep Black Vanishing Train,” the penultimate track on Blues Funeral, the first album in nearly a decade from former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, the sandpaper-voiced singer wearily growls, “I’ve finally freed myself / But it’s been hard to break away”. If you’ve followed Lanegan’s career since The Screaming Trees’ brief flirtation with mainstream success in the early 1990s, you know that the singer has spent more than his share of time in search of an oblivion the he all too often found. Unlike several of his less fortunate Seattle-based peers (Messrs. Cobain and Stayley being among the obvious), Lanegan somehow gave the grim reaper the slip and launched a highly successful second act as a solo artist and in-demand collaborator. Since releasing the brilliant but unrelentingly bleak Bubblegum in 2004, Lanegan has spent time on the road with Queens of the Stone Age and Soulsavers and released three unlikely yet potent albums with former Belle and Sebastian singer/cellist Isobel Campbell.
Lanegan may have escaped the darkness but darkness will always be his aesthetic. There really isn’t much else you’d want to hear from a guy with a nicotine-scorched voice (one of the most powerful yet underrated in the history of rock n’ roll) and tattoos across all of his fingers, anyway. Lurking in the shadows befits our man just fine. With the exception of a stint as fellow reformed hellraiser Greg Dulli’s co-conspirator in the universally acclaimed Gutter Twins project, Lanegan seems most comfortable standing just outside of the spotlight. When Lanegan performs live he appears like an apparition, stands as still as a statue, and bolts for the wings as soon as he’s no longer needed.
With Blues Funeral, however, Lanegan steps back into the light in exciting and unexpected ways. The album, credited to the Mark Lanegan Band, was produced by one-time QOTSA/Them Crooked Vultures sideman Alain Johannes, whose lyrical guitar playing and ability to dabble in seemingly disparate genres with ease allow Lanegan to explore previously uncharted musical territory. That’s not to say Lanegan doesn’t still sound like a preacher conducting his final mass before the apocalypse. On this go around, with the help of Johannes and the usual cast of Joshua Tree misfits (Josh Homme, Chris Goss, and Greg Dulli all make small but significant contributions), Lanegan has expanded his sonic palate to include everything from krautrock to ‘80s electronica, crafting colorful tapestries for his cast of god-forsaken sinners to play out their psychodramas on.
Rumbling, eardrum-bursting album opener “The Gravedigger’s Song” picks up where Bubblegum’s clattering “Methamphetamine Blues” left off. On the latter Lanegan was loaded to the nines, praying that he’d never come down again. Now he sounds like he’s being slowly tortured by past vices. While a throbbing, stomach-churning beat stalks forward Lanegan sings, “With piranha teeth / I’ve been dreaming of you” to the unattainable object of his feverish desire, before being knocked flat on his back by a squall of abrasive, howling guitars. Lanegan slips into the preacher role for the trancey, hymn-like “Bleeding, Bloody Water”, leading his faithless slowly toward the abyss with talk of “Muddy water / Celestial flood / You know I feel you / In my iron lung”.
“Grey Goes Black”, with its motorik beat and haunted arpeggios, is the first sign that Lanegan is ready to step outside of his comfort zone. While we’re on common ground lyrically (the hangman makes his first of several appearances here), the song is the first evidence of Lanegan’s current Kraftwerk obsession. The run of songs that kicks off with the religious-imagery fueled “St. Louis Elegy” and concludes with the haunting, guns-on-the-table showdown of “Leviathan” represent what might be Lanegan’s strongest, diverse, and most approachable music to date. While “Phantasmagoria Blues” runs dangerously close to self-parody, it contains the quintessential Lanegan lyric “Thought I’d rule like Charlemagne but I’ve become corrupt / Now I crawl the promenade to fill my empty cup”. “Ode to Sad Disco” is a big, pulsating tip of the cap to bands like New Order and Depeche Mode. It’s a tune one might be able to slip on at dance party were it not for a repetitive, high and lonesome blues lick that keeps the track moored in Lanegan land. Album standout “Harborview Hospital” seems to draw its inspiration from an extremely unlikely source: U2. The track, built on a soft bed of shiny synths and spacious, ringing guitars, finds Lanegan at the hospital gates, softly praying “Oh Sisters of Mercy / I’ve been down too far to say”. Unlike Bono, however, Lanegan owns every last sentiment and, while salvation still appears to be slightly beyond his reach, the results are curiously uplifting.
It has probably been a while since Lanegan has been to his dealer’s house, but he sounds like he could still lead you there with a blindfold on. While most of the album passes by in an oddly comforting, narcotized haze, Lanegan is not above grabbing the devil by the wrist, pushing the pedal to the floor, and throwing down some bare-knuckled hard rock like few others know how. Josh Homme shows up to shred all over “Riot in My House”, a ferocious, Zeppelin-esque barn burner full of bad trip lyrics like “Hear the coughing sound / Mama bring my medication / No harmony is found / While performing levitation”. With its locomotive drum beat (courtesy of one-time Pearl Jam skinsman Jack Irons), coarse guitars, and bleeding synths, the unstoppable “Quiver Syndrome” sounds like Lanegan speeding straight toward the bad part of town, pondering his fate along the way. “Will the Lord hold me down ‘cause i’m wicked? / Will the Lord hold me down, to my shame?” he asks before landing “Knocked back in the alley / With the sweat pouring off my hands”.
Lanegan has seen too much in his 47 years to ever completely look away. But with Blues Funeral, he makes his universe a little easier for up to inhabit and to understand. As he enters his fourth decade as a performer Lanegan is undoubtedly operating at the top of his game. We’re fortunate to have someone like him to tell us about those dark places that most of us will never be brave enough—or is it foolish enough?—to visit.