If tears were liquor…

With his latest album “Blues Funeral”, Mark Lanegan has created a dream world where bluesmen play synthesizers and gospel music is as loud as heavy metal.

I’ve delayed writing about this album for a while, but for good reason. I wanted to enjoy the music without feeling the need to immediately analyze it. We live in a world of snap judgments, where opinions are formed and shared simultaneously. This accelerated critical process is dangerous when it comes to assessing art. Great works often take time to digest and understand, to sink into the deepest part of our consciousness, and it seems like some elements of this concept have been lost in the race for faster communication. So when it came to the latest release from Mark Lanegan’s infrequent solo project, I wanted to let it soak into my awareness before I put my thoughts down about it here. I like it too much to conduct a first-impression dissection.

Mark Lanegan is a man who wears many hats: rock vocalist, folkie, duet partner, spiritual advisor, collaborator, bluesman, metal head, and grunge figurehead. But left to his own devices, Lanegan is capable of making every one of these personae work together, as he does so amazingly on this album.

The opening tune, a mid-tempo bass and drum hammer called “The Gravedigger’s Song”, sets a dark and mysterious tune for the album. The opening line is beautifully evocative. “With piranha teeth, I’ve been dreaming of you”, Lanegan sings in his menacing, gravel-throated croon. It’s the first of several dozen wonderfully dark and poetic couplets. And from that point on, the stage is set for Mark’s stylistic masterpiece. He even sings in French at one point: ” je t’aime, mon amour, comme j’aime la nuit.” It’s an amazing line, and the fact that he switches to another language so fleetingly is extremely badass.

“Bleeding Muddy Water” brings things down to a slowburn as the second track. Evoking the name of the  legendary bluesman as a kind of gospel mantra, Mark oozes with suicidal pain. The tune builds slowly, with layers of atmospheric keyboards and reversed guitars wrapping around his voice as he repeats “baby, don’t it feel so bad?”. But the real lyrical gold in this song is another repeated phrase: “You know I feel you, in my iron lung”.

“Grey Goes Black” picks things up again, with a stuttering drum beat and a wickedly ambiguous tremeloed guitar riff. The momentum builds just enough to propel the album forward to the next amazing track.

“St. Louis Elegy” is inhabited by the kind of brilliantly dark songwriting persona that most artists would have to manufacture. But when Lanegan sings “if tears were liquor, I’d have drunk myself sick”, before launching into a moaning, wordless chorus, you somehow know that he’s not faking it. Remarkably, Lanegan makes singing about crying sound incredibly tough and gritty. He’s not constructing this stuff; it’s authentic pain. A spooky organ and skeletal guitars haunt the background of the song, but otherwise its just bass and simple drum machine. Lanegan and producer Alain Johannes make these simple elements into a lush, gigantic sound.

The next track is one of the real rockers. “Riot In My House” features frequent collaborator Josh Homme on lead guitar, and it is unmistakably in his style: high, liquid, and wailing. Its one of the few tracks that recalls his earlier work with rock bands. And it does rock.

“Ode to Sad Disco” co-opts the language of electronic music to present a different side of Mark. Its a synth-heavy drum machine track, with Lanegan singing the higher part of his range about riding white horses and other Zeppelinesque things.

“Phantasmagoria Blues” is another standout track, incorporating skittering drum machines and distant keyboard sounds that heave and recede in waves. “If you had a razor blade, took it to your wrists, I’d be sitting here in my electric chair because of this.” Or check out this one: “Thought I’d rule like Charlamagne, but I’ve become corrupt”.

“Quiver Syndrome” is the other “rock” song on the album, and it features some Johannes-style downstroke guitar, pounding drums, wobbly synths, and some cool “woo woo” backup vocals, like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” played by a New Wave band.

“Harbourview Hospital” finds Mark slowing things down for a frosty electronic ballad about a medical facility in Seattle. He name checks a few landmarks as he opines about the devils and hellhounds chasing him, invoking the name of the hospital as a kind of protection from evil and sickness. Lyrically, it’s a total blues song, but it sounds like mid-nineties electronica. It’s a bold juxtaposition.

“Leviathan” is a dirge in the truest sense of the word; at last we arrive at the funeral promised by the title. Against the backdrop of cello and skeletal guitars, Lanegan croons to soothe his demons. Skeletons, spiders, and a hangman all appear as characters in this song, which is fitting.

“Deep Black Vanishing Train” almost seems like Lanegan’s exit from this haunted land; you feel like he’s about to board the locomotive for oblivion. But then there’s one more coda: “Tiny Grain of Truth”. Lanegan seems to be fighting against his own end here: “what’s done is done is done now…”

Seriously, there too many good lyrics on this album to list them all. Words are often somewhat overlooked compared to his voice, but this album rife with dark, abstract poetry. Every other line is pure linguistic gold. The other star of this album is Alain Johannes’ superb production. No two songs feature the same instrumentation, and every arrangement is perfectly built up around the feeling in Mark’s voice. Johannes’ production manages to be instrumentally lean, while creating a deep and haunting sonic landscape.

With each of his releases, Mark Lanegan has carved out an increasingly distinct identify for himself, proving that his unique voice can be applied to a wide variety of styles and musical settings. “Blues Funeral” is another amazing entry into the canon of one the most unique singer-songwriters of our time.

1 thought on “If tears were liquor…

  1. Pingback: The List at the End of the Year | Audio Reckoning

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