‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ arrives off the back of new memoir, ‘Sing Backwards and Weep’. This is not so much a companion piece as a natural by-product of, and creative outlet for what Mark Lanegan describes as, a “Pandora’s box full of pain and misery”.
Written at the insistence of close friend Anthony Bourdain, who more recently killed himself in 2018, ‘Sing Backwards…’ is candid to say the least.
By his own admission, by 12, Lanegan was a “compulsive gambler, fledgling alcoholic, thief” and “porno fiend”.
The book goes on to chronicle his experience of the grunge scene that grew out of the Pacific Northwest, as well as the “decadence” and “depravity” that would plague its salad days during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
No fewer than nine lost their lives either to addiction, like Mad Season bandmate Layne Staley, or in once roommate and collaborator on an unreleased album of Lead Belly covers Kurt Cobain’s case, suicide. Survivor’s guilt pervades the album as a result.
‘Straight Songs…’ begins with Lanegan wistful and forlorn. I Wouldn’t Want to Say finds the former member of the Screaming Trees vacillating between “death and revival” over musique concrète utilised with an Organelle.
At nearly six minutes long, the opener is both meandering and propulsive and allows the songwriter’s typically weathered voice to stretch not only its cadence but the song’s verse too, often at a moment’s notice.
Lanegan’s ruminations are dichotomous. They contrast optimism and self-flagellation. Yet they’re always poignant, poetic and well-delivered.
When he’s not pleading, “get out while you can”, Lanegan confesses, “my heart is black as night/This Barrel Bomb in my brain ignites/A self-aimed incendiary device/Suddenly everything I ever had is on ice/All those who tried to help me scattered like mice”.
Lanegan explains, “that song is the explanation, the beginning and middle and end of that entire period of time…the encapsulation of the entire experience, book and record so I started with that”.
Elsewhere, he duets with wife, Shelley Brien (also co-writer on Burying Ground and Eden Lost and Found) on the dreamy call for redemption, Game of Love.
There’s a plethora of collaborations on ‘Straight Songs…’. Appalachian, At Zero Below features fellow Gutter Twin, Greg Dulli, as well as The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis who contributes with some rather incantatory fiddle-playing.
Meanwhile, it’s top marks for production from Portishead’s Adrian Utley on Daylight in the Nocturnal Rain who combines smoky atmospherics with backing melodies not too dissimilar to those that can be heard at the end of Where Would You Be? by neo-soul singer, Yaw.
Peter Hook’s son, Jack Bates performs bass on the delicate and stripped-back Churchbells, Ghosts on which Lanegan laments, “aging hustler/Born without a mother/Born without a soul/I’d ask somebody for a quarter/If there were someone for me to phone”.
Lamb of God’s, Mark Morton fingerpicks his way through Apple from a Tree and Hanging on (for DRC) (an ode to Dylan Carlson, Godfather of drone metal). Both are short and skeletal in their construction yet no less beautiful.
For all the contributors and electronic touches on this record-in addition, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones offers mellotron on Ballad of a Dying Rover while labelmate, Ed Harcourt even lays down Wurlitzer – ‘Straight Songs…’ is never bloated.
Despite this, its two strongest songs remain in-house, Lanegan’s house.
Its centrepiece, the mighty and infectious Skeleton Key can easily stake a claim for the strongest rock single this year while, concluding the album, Eden Lost and Found provides some positivity for times ahead.
Adorned with repetition, violin and organ sounds reminiscent of Sharon Van Etten’s spectacular, You Shadow, you can’t help but feel a sense of relief for Lanegan…and also a little bit jaded.
Although there is camaraderie, humour, gratitude and a sense of overcoming the odds in parts, there’s an overriding feeling of sadness and remorse throughout the album.
And while this will be sure to resonate with many, it is Lanegan who appears to be the most lonely of them all.