Mark Lanegan Gives Harrowing & Riveting Journey Via ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Mark Lanegan’s Straight Songs of Sorrow, lives up to its title, a harrowing—and riveting—journey through the singer/songwriter’s life, and a companion piece to his memoir, Sing Backwards And Weep. You don’t need to have read the book to appreciate the honesty of the album, which makes a compelling argument for Lanegan as a contemporary Lead Belly.

Lead Belly is the early 20th-century folk-blues singer known for his emotive vocals and stark guitar accompaniment. Lanegan’s career arc is considerably different, finding success in the 1990s grunge band Screaming Trees, before taking on a meandering solo career that veered from roots to electronic to New Wave to straight-up rock. What’s allowed Lanegan to survive so long is his ability to tap into the truth of a song, no matter what its genre, and to convey that truth to the listener. Straight Songs continues the tradition, but also serves as a survey of his various musical stops.

On “This Game of Love,” Lanegan duets with his wife, Shelley Brien, in a musical tribute to his electronic work. The track is a ballad performed over strings, both singers placed back in the mix so you have to struggle to hear them. The melody is performed slowly, giving the feeling not so much of singing, but of hypnotic chanting. An electronic bass drum kicks in, pushing the tempo, and gradually morphing the track into something just a few beats per minute short of disco. The track is relentlessly dark, with the husband and wife crooning back and forth to each other, “Now I lay me down to rest / cold ground up against my back / Time and again I failed a test” before repeating the refrain “Painful as a heart attack.” It’s not an easy track to enjoy, but it’s hard to stop listening to it. Over and over again.

“Skeleton Key” similarly gets in your bones. Starting with a huge bass groove, Lanegan quickly moves into a desperate melody: “Love me / Why would you ever love me? / No one has ever loved me, you pretty baby.” Synth swirls carry the upsetting vocals through the song, Lanegan’s voice sounding like it’s coming from inside of your head. Like “This Game of Love,” it’s a challenging track, but one you’ll carry with you—lyrically and melodically—for hours after you stopped playing it.

But Straight Songs also has nods to other parts of Lanegan’s career, with “Apples from a Tree” featuring just Lanegan’s voice and folk guitar (courtesy of Lamb Of God’s Mark Morton). “At Zero Below,” featuring background vocals from fellow 90s icon Greg “Afghan Whigs” Dulli, is positively Celtic, complete with country violin courtesy of The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis. Both tracks hearken back to Lanegan’s 1990s solo work.

The Lead Belly comparisons come from “Ballad of a Dying Rover,” an electronic dirge, featuring Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, but with a hook recalling Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” There’s something magical about the association, touching not just upon Lanegan’s spiritual past, but also his spiritual contemporaries, since the Lead Belly song is perhaps best known for its inclusion in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York set. Lanegan and Cobain bonded over a shared love of the folk artist and even tracked the song together. Lanegan covered the song alone on his 1990 solo album The Winding Sheet.

If Lead Belly were alive today, he might be making music like this, anchored not so much in riffs but to emotions, pulling from every genre and musical texture to bring his songs to life. Lanegan wrote most of the music for this album with his producer Alain Johannes and you can hear the essence of Lanegan in the rawness of the tracks. Lanegan frames out his songs using beats and synths and stops as soon as the structure is stable. The tracks aren’t designed to be ornate; they’re designed to support his lyrics. The result is a beautifully haunting journey.

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