Music, Reviews

Mark Lanegan, ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ review: sober reflections on a wasted past

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Mark Lanegan is one of the most prolific singer-songwriters working today. His main vehicle is his eponymous band (with whom he released the album Somebody’s Knockin’ last year). He also releases albums with Duke Garwood and has worked with everyone from Isobel Campbell to Queens of the Stone Age.

He first came to prominence in the 1990’s as the singer in one of the popular hard rock bands out of Seattle, Screaming Trees. The Screaming Trees scored a hit with their 1992 album Sweet Oblivion which contained the popular songs Dollar Bill, Shadow of the Season and of course, Nearly Lost You. The music he releases solo and under the Mark Lanegan Band moniker doesn’t have much in common with Screaming Trees.

His recent work has incorporated more electronic elements with each release culminating in Somebody’s Knockin’, which largely consists of moody up-tempo tunes influenced by the likes of Joy Division and New Order.

Straight Songs of Sorrow emerged from the process of writing his memoir Sing Backwards and Weep which was released in April. In a press release, Lanegan said:

“Writing the book, I didn’t get catharsis. All I got was a Pandora’s Box full of pain and misery. I went way in, and remembered shit I’d put away 20 years ago. But I started writing these songs the minute I was done, and I realised there was a depth of emotion because they were all linked to memories from this book. It was a relief to suddenly go back to music. Then I realised that was the gift of the book: these songs. I’m really proud of this record.”

While the album is released by “Mark Lanegan”, without the “Band”, there is no shortage of guests. These include heavy hitters such as Greg Dulli, Warren Ellis (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dirty Three) John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Ed Harcourt. Lanegan’s wife Shelley Brien also appears on the album, duetting with her husband on This Game of Love.

To get a hold on the meaning of the album you don’t need to have read Sing Backwards and Weep, but it helps to know that the book covers Lanegan’s very difficult early life and his time with the Screaming Trees, when he battled alcoholism and drug addiction. The album title, Straight Songs of Sorrow, refers to Lanegan reflecting on his wasted past from a place of sobriety.

The album is thick with electronic sounds like much of his recent work. On Straight Songs of Sorrow though it’s a rougher aural world

The album is thick with electronic sounds like much of his recent work. On Straight Songs of Sorrow though it’s a rougher aural world – the pretty 1980’s electro found on Somebody’s Knockin’ is gone. This is immediately apparent on opening track I Wouldn’t Want to Say. It features an almost industrial beat that really hits the spot. Track two Apples from a Tree is the sort of song that I stupidly assumed would dominate the album – solitary guitar plucking and gentle melancholia.

This Game of Love consists of melodies musical and vocal both exquisite and heartrending. Brien tours with Lanegan from time to time and it would be a treat to witness this played live featuring the both of them. However, on this song and much of the first half of the album, the lyrics aren’t as acute or poetic as we’re used to hearing from Lanegan – perhaps a hangover from writing prose?

Bleed All Over most resembles the boppy moodiness he’s been doing lately and indeed it is irresistible. However, the album only becomes inspirational in its second half, beginning with the druggy acoustic lament Stockholm City Blues followed by album highlights Skeleton Key and Ballad of a Dying Rover.

Skeleton Key features the kind of lyrical blunt force trauma and Lanegan’s lived-in baritone that fans find so addictive. After a few bars of grungy electronics Lanegan wails “ugly, I’m so very ugly, I’m ugly inside and out there’s no denying”.

Ballad of a Dying Rover is backed by John Paul Jones on mellotron and is like nothing we’ve heard before from Lanegan. On this truly gothic tune, Lanegan sings of being “a sick, sick man” and the listener is reminded of Lanegan’s work with the late Layne Staley on the solitary Mad Season album.

Later tracks Burying Ground and At Zero Below confirm that this is another incredible album from Mark Lanegan, even if it was looking ever so slightly off for the first half. All fans have to do now is read his book.

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