Mark Lanegan, over his 12 solo records following the dissolution of Screaming Trees, has built a diverse legacy for himself. His career has meandered through the slow folk-rock balladry of The Winding Sheet and Whiskey for the Holy Ghost; the sombre country-infused I’ll Take Care of You and Field Songs; brief mainstream success in his collaborations with Isobel Campbell; the sludgy rock ‘n’ roll sounds of Blues Funeral, Phantom Radio and last year’s Somebody’s Knocking; and even the industrial electronics of Gargoyle. On Straight Songs of Sorrow, released in tandem with his memoirs, Lanegan has gotten reflective, offering an hour-long, largely autobiographical collection of songs which acts as a fitting exploration of his stylistic evolution.
Lanegan’s recent memoirs, Sing Backwards and Weep, have caused controversy in the music community, reigniting a decades-old feud with Liam Gallagher and causing Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Conner to label Lanegan “vicious and petty”. This caustic, borderline spiteful energy is present in album opener I Wouldn’t Want to Say as Lanegan makes veiled references to personal vendettas and fairweather friends. Equally, however, Lanegan is not afraid to turn inwards, uncomfortably tackling his own demons: declaring that his heart is “black as night”; describing his brain as “barrel bomb” and a “self-aimed incendiary device”; and pleading to those around him to “get out while you can”, insisting that he will only bring “bad luck and misery”. It’s an astonishing opener, full of tar-black humour, acerbic slander and searing self-reflective honesty.
In comparison, Apples From A Tree is notably more subdued, as Lanegan, with the help of Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, returns to the folky beginnings of Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, delivering a brief, honeyed and contemplative acoustic concessionary. It’s a great track but it feels rather shoe-horned in between the plodding electronics of I Wouldn’t Want to Say and the synth-infused This Game of Love. It would have been more at home prefacing the similarly contemplative Hanging On (For DRC), Lanegan’s take on his longtime friendship with Dylan Carson, the lead guitarist of drone-rock pioneers Earth.
At the risk of getting too bogged down in trivialities, Straight Songs of Sorrow’s flaws are few and forgivable. If you’re willing to excuse some minor formal blemishes and a slightly overlong runtime, then there’s barely a bum note on this record. From the sleazy baselines and grumbling baritones of Ketamine to the eerie, hymnal, piano-driven flavours of Churchbells, Ghosts to the morbid, Cash-like blues ballad At Zero Below, and everything in between, Lanegan is flexing here.
In short, he has struck gold: a retrospective which is honest, timely and appropriate, and a virtuosic affirmation of his hard-worn reputation as one of rock n’ roll’s greatest survivors.