The blues aren’t dead, of course, but don’t tell Mark Lanegan. On his seventh solo album, Blues Funeral (released last week via 4AD), the shadowy singer – who is probably most familiar to music fans from his long-time gig fronting grunge band the Screaming Trees or as a recurring guest on Queens of the Stone Age’s rotating roster – may as well be performing last rites to traditional blues. In dressing up his dark, plaintive hymns in percolating, programmed drum beats (“Phantasmagoria Blues,” “The Gravedigger’s Song”) and low-lying string groans (“Bleeding Muddy Water”), the man known to his friends as “Old Scratch” has arguably turned in one of the best records of his 27-year career.
This latest outing is hardly the first time Lanegan’s tried breathing new life into the blues, however. With a voice that can sound as rough as the road to salvation or as smooth as single malt whiskey, Lanegan’s love affair with the genre’s deepest, blackest trenches can be traced as far back as his 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet. An astounding first effort outside of his day job with the Screaming Trees, the album firmly established the themes of lost love, sin, redemption, guilt and deliverance that remain omnipresent in the singer’s work, including a soulful take on the Leadbelly standard “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
On his 1994 followup, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Lanegan’s storied battles with his own demons seemed to be the centrepiece for a slate of husky-throated numbers – including “Judas Touch,” “Beggar’s Blues” and “Pendulum” – each one practically bleeding an eerie aura of dirty needles and ashen skin, and delivered with such pained authenticity you can practically hear the countless nights spent wrestling with substance abuse and a subsequent loss of faith.
After numerous stints in rehab, the raspy songsmith returned with 1998’s Scraps at Midnight, a final helping of the slow, mostly acoustic approach he’d employed to this point. Then came 1999’s I’ll Take Care of You, an album of cover songs that not only gave due props to Lanegan’s diverse list of influences, it also seemed to signal a move toward incorporating more electric instrumentation. The impressively curated track listing included “Boogie Boogie” by American rock and blues crooner Tim Rose, an American traditional called “Little Sadie” (also known as “Cocaine Blues,” “Transfusion Blues,” “East St. Louis Blues” and “Penitentiary Blues,” among other titles) and Eddie Floyd and Booker T. Jones’s lovelorn plea, “Consider Me.”
Lanegan records with feeling of blues, without the tradition
Two years later, Lanegan continued his chameleonic evolution by infusing fleeting moments of guitar dissonance (“Blues For D,” “Resurrection Song”) and exotic female backing vocals (“No Easy Action”) into his usual mix of smoky dirges for 2001’s Field Songs. If there was ever a doubt that the singer was anything more than an incurably sad bastard, this accomplished set showcased an unexpected ability to musically slip his shackles if he started to feel boxed in.
In a 2004 interview for the release of Bubblegum, a looser, experimental record characterized by sullen, lamp-lit confessionals (“When Your Number Isn’t Up”), raucous romps down desert highways (“Driving Death Valley Blues,” “Methamphetamine Blues”) and breathtaking balladry (“One Hundred Days”), Lanegan admitted that:
“It’s sort of been my obsession to make records that had the feeling of the blues, the spirit of them, I think, but without being what we’d consider to be traditional blues, or 12-bar ‘bar band’ blues, which is a boring, outdated mode and I’m not interested in it. But I am interested in the real feelings behind it."
This interview is from 2004 in regards to the release of the disc, Bubblegum.
So far, just one Canadian date has been announced for Lanegan’s upcoming North America tour (May 15 at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club in Toronto). In the meantime, let’s pray he keeps digging.
Booker T. Jones
Saturday Night Blues
on Mar 13, 2012