Mark Lanegan is a little like one of those hybrid electric cars – a great idea on paper but one that never seems to have had the legs (or wheels) to take off into the stratosphere of greatness. His profile should be much greater than it is really, given the enormity of musical success he has been involved in from Nirvana, PJ Harvey and Queens of The Stone Age to name but a few notes on his bedpost. Every home should have one sharing an adapter with one’s kettle – good for the roads, our consciences and the planet but perhaps not really powerful enough to get you all the way to the shops and back?
Mark is, however, unlike the little green electro-pods in more ways than the obvious. No, he shouldn’t really be plugged into anything – except for an amp and should in no way be asked to live in anyone’s porch…..but he should be taken more seriously. The gruff and often obscure bundle of enigma is in no way cute, dinky, and with more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Bridges on a very hung-over day Lanegan is much more elusive, and far less convenient a commodity. He is in fact extremely confusing when it comes to what makes his music good – really good.
It is not that he is an unknown quantity in terms of musical recognition. He has though , like Tom Waits remained successful albeit a little more under the radar than the likes of other great and innovative songwriters such as Cohen, Waits or even Dylan……hushed whispers please- even though he has been on the go since the early eighties. It was not until the hugely successful release of his sixth album, Bubblegum that his name was introduced to a wider sphere of recognition.
Mark Lanegan could be described as being the Kurt Cobain that lived, albeit an older and seemingly strung-out version – He’s never lost the grunge with which he began his career with the Screaming Trees. Lanegan’s voice, however, was always a different thing altogether in both its strength and vulnerability. Once described as being “as scratchy as a three-day beard yet as supple and pliable as moccasin leather’, Lanegan’s voice has, from the get-go produced a kind of terrible beauty which Cobain could only have dreamt of – rich, blues-ridden and contradictory. It is seductive, sensual and, paired with lyrics that swerve more toward the dark than to the light it creates an interesting and elusive mix in terms of the songs and albums that Lanegan makes.
Part of the genius that is Mark Lanegan is more than the voice though or indeed sum of his song parts. It is an identity that has yet to be classified. The fact that he has worked with so many other musicians has most definitely highlighted something special by way of mixing it up. The collaborations – oh the collaborations…..who has this man not worked with over the years? From asserting his place in the not so tentative beginnings of grunge with Kurt Cobain and to the rather less likely projects with Bomb the Bass and Isobel Campbell, it’s fair to say that, musically, Lanegan is one giant paradox- with almost no clearly defined focus. It’s not hard to imagine a scene in which his many musical partners get together in a room simply to shake their head in confusion as to who he really is.
Lanegan may not be a festival-grabber in terms of screaming crowds (not really being a ‘people’ person…) but it is this that marks him out as uber relevant in today’s musical climate- an environment which seems to be casting off the shackles of ‘genre’ with a giddy declaration of musical independence. If Lanegan’s rusty caged vocals are to be a mascot for this kind of freedom then Blues Funeral, his latest album, is most definitely its flagship for style swinging. Leave your car keys in the ashtray folks because with this album you just don’t know who you might be sleeping with. Each and every song on the album seems to be underlining the many diverse aspects of Mark’s musical forays over the years.
The ghosts of bands past can easily be traced in songs like Quiver Syndrome, which has more of a hint of the Screaming Trees (although much more seasoned) in there as well as the familiar emotional blues roots of Bleeding Muddy Water and Leviathan whereas the dirty industrial grunge of Riot In My House and The Gravedigger’s Song preserve the hugely successful energy-driven sound of Bubblegum - the band’s last album released back in 2004.
True to form though, Blues Funeral throws in more than a couple of curve balls with what can only be described as an ode to Krautrock with the riotously strange …….and beautiful – really beautiful Ode to Sad Disco. The moody, haunting and dare I see creepy vibe then of St. Louis Elegy and Deep Black Vanishing Train only serve to render an already lyrical and excellently written album a truly diplomatic one in terms being true to every one of Lanegan’s musical faces. There is not one moment of compromise here by way of genre mixing. The album is an angry, beautiful, thoughtful and playful expression of a truly great musician. Mark Lanegan has shockingly and, more to the point unshockingly immersed himself in a schizophrenic mess of musical moments and every song, because of this fearlessness is truly great in its own right.