May 8th, 2020


Mark Lanegan – Straight Songs of Sorrow (Heavenly Recordings)

Since the dissolution of Screaming Trees in the mid-90s, Lanegan has pumped out a steady stream of solo, quasi-solo, and collaborative projects. Each of these projects falls inconsistently into the generic and not-so-descriptive genre of “rock”. While some of his work has a definite and undeniable relationship to blues, folk, and shoegaze pop, a large proportion of it is rather tightly related to Leonard Cohen’s brand of nearly monotonous croaking. This places the emphasis on the dark poetry of the lyrics, rather than be distracted by trifling diversions like melody and beat.

Straight Songs of Sorrow is not an exception to this tendency. Rather, it feels like Lanegan digging his heels in, daring us to challenge his brand. His voice is croakier than ever, nary finding a foothold on whatever staggered melodies exist. In most of the tracks on the record, we have a choice to make: do we focus on the poetry or the attempt. When the poetry is good, it’s emotive and colorful and we hear his internal struggle. When it’s not good, it’s super-repetitive and banal, grasping at overused imagery and ‘sung’ with no connection whatsoever. 

The musical attempt is pretty typical of Lanegan’s tendency toward slow, three-chord progressions. By itself, it isn’t much to write about, as it relies heavily on a relationship with his voice. When that relationship is evident, it bangs. It’s a vibe that Lanegan has repeatedly dubbed “Dark Disco” in the lyrics to his songs (“Ode to Sad Disco” from Blues Funeral, “Dark Disco Jag” from Somebody’s Knocking). 

The big problem with Songs of Sorrow is that the 2 elements rarely line up. When the poetry is keen, the music is dispassionate, and the song falls short (“Burying Ground”). When the music is cool and reaching for attention, the lyrics are rambling and incoherent (“Bleed All Over”, “At Zero Below”). And sometimes neither is there (“I Wouldn’t Want To Say”). The middle of the record has the songs that stick out as examples of what Mark is capable of. For 3 contiguous songs, everything lines up, the clouds allow the light in, and we get to bask in his post-grunge, drug-addled perfection (“Stockholm City Blues”, “Skeleton Key”, “Daylight In The Nocturnal House”). 

FFO: Screaming Trees, Afghan Whigs, Leonard Cohen, PJ Harvey

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