Straight Songs of Sorrow, the twelfth studio album by gravel-voiced grunge survivor Mark Lanegan was never going to be an easy listen. In fact, it’s one of the darkest records he’s ever made, which is saying something. It’s also one of his best: a sprawling 15-track masterpiece. The vinyl version is a double album – 180 gram, with a gatefold sleeve.
Fittingly, for a collection of songs based on his life story, the album embraces the folk and blues sounds that crept into his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases. It’s an intoxicating mix of the traditional and the experimental.
Talking about his memoirs and the album, Lanegan, who was the vocalist in Screaming Trees and also a fully paid-up member of Queens of the Stone Age, says: “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 the 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.”
And so he should be, although it’s a gift that’s more suited to a funeral than a birthday party – the shadow of death hangs over this album and there’s plenty of destruction and drugs thrown in for good measure, too. One of the songs is called ‘Ketamine’ – although, amusingly, Lanegan admits that is actually one of the few narcotics he hasn’t taken…
On the seven-minute epic ‘Skeleton Key’, over a moody, throbbing electronic bassline and synthesised strings, he sings: “I spent my life trying every way to die – is it my fate to be the last one standing?”
Similarly, on ‘Hanging On (For DRC)’ – a pretty and delicate acoustic ballad that’s dedicated to his friend Dylan Carlson, from drone doom group Earth, who, like Lanegan, is also a survivor of the Seattle rock and roll scene, he tells us: “By all rights we should be gone, but you and me are still hanging on.”
‘Ballad Of A Dying Rover’ is very uncomfortable – a suffocating, electro-goth dirge with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones providing some eerie Mellotron. “Death is my due’ – I’m just a sick, sick man… my days are numbered,” laments Lanegan.
With its fingerpicking and mournful strings, ‘Stockholm City Blues’ is stunning. A haunting ballad about addiction – “I pay for this pain I put into my blood” – it sees him staring out of a hotel window in the rain-soaked Swedish capital city, full of remorse.
His wife, Shelley Brien plays Nancy Sinatra to his Lee Hazlewood on the duet ‘This Game Of Love’ – it recalls Lanegan’s collaborations with Isobel Campbell – while on ‘At Zero Below’, he ropes in The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis to play some sinister country fiddle – backing vocals are courtesy of Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs), who was Lanegan’s partner in crime in the Gutter Twins side-project.
Thanks to its electronic sounds and skittering beats, ‘Internal Hourglass Discussion’ brings to mind late-period Radiohead, or Thom Yorke’s solo material – Lanegan’s current favourite instrument to compose on is a miniature computer-synth called an Organelle.
Portishead’s Adrian Utley provides atmospherics on ‘Daylight In The Nocturnal House’ – adding some echo-laden, twangy and bluesy guitar to a horror-folk ballad, which also features mandolin.
Jack Bates, son of Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), plays bass on ‘Churchbells, Ghosts’ – a hypnotic, ambient soundtrack for a gruelling life spent on a tour bus.
Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. On the final song, the hopeful and spiritual-like ‘Eden Lost and Found’, with gospel organ, Lanegan says: “Sunrise coming up baby – to burn the dirt right off of me.”
After accompanying him on his harrowing and emotionally draining journey, it feels good to finally emerge from the darkness. How about adopting it as an anthem for a post-coronavirus world?