Mark Lanegan’s prolific output shows no signs of abating as he releases his second album in less than seven months. ‘Straight Songs Of Sorrow’ follows last year’s release ‘Somebody’s Knocking’ and is inspired by his own life and his memoir ‘Sing Backwards And Weep’ (if this is what he’s capable of without being on lockdown then God only knows what’s to come in the near future). Lanegan’s book, containing detailed and frank recollections of his troubled and eventful life, did not bring the catharsis he was hoping for but it did ‘gift’ him these songs and he says, “I’m really proud of this record.”
Lanegan’s fifteen new tracks serve to further document his extraordinary life and in so doing also, quite coincidentally, give a helicopter view of his musical output. There is Alt-Folk to full blown Electronica as well as a signature duet or two along the way. Helping deliver Lanegan’s autobiographical vision are, amongst others, Portishead’s Adrian Uttley, Ed Harcourt, Bad Seed Warren Ellis, Led Zep’s John Paul Jones and Lanegan’s wife Shelley Brien.
The album’s opening track ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Say’ follows on from ‘Somebody’s Knocking’ with a clear connection through its electronic composition and perfectly sums up Lanegan’s life in one lyric: “Swinging from death, from death to revival”. That’s not to say that this album is overtly dark or in any way depressing, quite the opposite; it is full of positivity and hope. The string-laden soft beat of ‘This Game Of Love’ has to be one of the best tracks Lanegan has ever written and sung. The duet, with his wife Shelley Brien, is a genuine thing of real beauty. The layered harmonies sit beside each other so sweetly that they make an irresistible combination. The song is about Lanegan’s failure up until meeting his wife, in love, having had every girlfriend he’s ever had walk out on him. He and his wife sing this song together so symbiotically, affirming that many things are greater than the sum of their parts. Lanegan has done this before, most notably with Isobel Campbell, so he’s no stranger to this territory, but here he has excelled himself: “Don’t make me burn like this, I know the art of loneliness, free my soul of emptiness, pull me from the fire.”
‘Ketamine’, a song sung with Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold, is another paired down duet with some more stand-out lyrics. The brooding piano and bass-led track languishes in its own gorgeous misery: “‘Cause if I had a rifle, I’d shoot straight up in the air and watch you fall back down to Earth with a wide eyed graveyard stare.” Lanegan has a great turn of phrase that suits his deep, ravaged vocal to a tee and on his latest release both are on form. ‘Churchbells, Ghosts’, a song about life on the road, is another of the album’s statement tracks. The high piano and low bass, provided here by Peter Hook’s son Jack Bates, is a wonderful composition that has been arranged and produced with such consummate skill, it’s almost a spiritual thing.
Recent singles ‘Skeleton Key’, whose lyrics reference the album’s title, and ‘Bleed All Over’ are more full blown affairs with broader strokes and vast, expansive soundscapes that unfold throughout each track. Lanegan poses the question: “I spent my life trying every way to die, is it my fate to be the last one standing?” on the epic, 7-min-5-sec, tempered squal of ‘Skeleton Key’ whilst on ‘Bleed All Over’ he pleads for his needs. Warren Ellis comes up trumps as he provides a stirring, and at times haunting, violin to accompany Lanegan’s exposé on himself during ‘At Zero Below’ and John Paul Jones provides some inspired Mellotron on ‘Ballad Of A Dying Rover’ but it is often Lanegan’s simpler songs that provide the connection to his torment and struggle.
The two briefest songs on the album, ‘Apples From A Tree’ and ‘Hanging On (For DRC)’, both of which are played out with the help of Mark Morton from Lamb Of God, are also two of the simplest in terms of instrumentation and arrangement. There are no electronics, no percussion, just Lanegan and a gently plucked guitar. Both work because of their open honesty, clarity and human connection. ‘Hanging On (For DRC)’ is a life-affirming tribute of sorts to his friend Dylan Carlson, a fellow survivor of the punishing ’90s Seattle Rock scene. In many ways it’s an apology for living, Lanegan being well aware that “By all rights we should be gone”, but as the song’s narrative continues he celebrates his good fortune and his friend’s capability to remain positive and cheery.
Lanegan concludes his new 15-track album with a happy ending as he sings out ‘Eden Lost And Found’ with his favourite singer, Crime and The City Solution’s Simon Bonney. “I wanted to make a positive song to end this record, because that’s the way the book ended”, says Lanegan. “Daylight is coming, daylight is calling me” he sings as the church organ plays out beneath him in a very bluesy vocal accented superbly with some strings and understated percussion.
‘Straight Songs Of Sorrow’ is undeniably a brilliant piece of work from an artist on top of his game. Whatever the reason – his artistry, his creativity, his appreciation of life or just that this album is so utterly personal, raw and revealing – we have been presented with an unequivocally stunning album.