Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mark Lanegan Band - Blues Funeral Review

Mark Lanegan occupies a singular position in modern music in that you know that anything he lends his voice to will be worth listening to. By virtue of the collaborators he picks and the sheer immensity and gravity of his baritone, Lanegan doesn’t do throw away. While this is his first solo album since 2004’s Bubblegum, he has been particularly prolific collaborating with Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli, Queens, Soulsavers and slowly building a body of work that is diverse but always satisfying. Lanegan’s participation in any project is an almost guarantee of quality and I think that might be because maybe he’s a little bit too scary for his collaborator’s to bring him dud material. Lanegan himself remains an enigma, a dark hearted soul who seems to live in a haze of cigarette smoke and shadows – getting a sense of him as a person is incredibly difficult from his chilly public persona. I guess that’s the point because if nothing else, Lanegan’s work is always shrouded in the half light, a dark presence on the edge of consciousness.

On Blues Funeral, Lanegan becomes the hunter, the hunted and the haunted but always with the sense of being the other and on the outside. Blues Funeral is both a logical successor to Bubblegum (a highpoint in his career for me) and a step away - while being conceptually similar, it's viewpoint seems slightly different. Bubblegum is a trawl through a Bukowski underworld sticky with heroin residue, desperation and sex as if the Lanegan’s baritone was expressing a lifetime of sorrow in a four minute song. Blues Funeral continues this but is more low key than its predecessor, almost an elegant refinement of the themes Lanegan has been peddling for years. Lanegan starts the album with the ferocious first single, The Gravedigger's Song:

With piranha teeth, I've been dreaming of you
And the taste of your love so sweet, honest it's true...

But that sense of attack is soon as he sings that his pursuits of his love has been torture. The line I imagine will be the most quoted off the album is from the beautiful St Louis Elegy:

I hear the winter will cut you quick If tears were liquor I’d have drunk myself sick

This song is closest to Bubblegum's 100 Days in mood and while it doesn't quite reach that song's heights, it's not far off. The albums' quality is very high and there is not a dud on here. That's not to say there are changes and I feel I must warn fans that their is a slight sonic shift in the sound here. On at least four songs, there is a definite eighties indie vibe that moves away from the dusky blues template of Bubblegum.

It's probably best to start with what I imagine will be the most divisive song for fans, Ode to sad disco. Driven by a Kraftwerkian motorik, it is startling to hear Lanegan crooning over electric flourishes and symphonic sweeps more akin to a Pet Shop Boys song (yes, I said Pet Shop Boys). There are guitars and it's unlikely this will be burning up Oxford Street anytime soon but as Lanegan reaches the refrain of "here I have seen the light" like an intoxicated man caught the ecstasy and despair that can grab you unexpectedly on the dance floor, it actually starts to make sense. In fact, it's probably the most literally named song you'll hear in some time because this is exactly how you'd imagine sad disco to sound if it were a genre.

Similarly, Gray Goes Black, Harborview Hospital and Tiny Grain Of Truth is a run through eighties indie pop keyboards and guitar jangle but with Lanegan acting as the anchor. Not to say it’s all different: Phantasmagoria Blues is a classic Lanegan blues lament while Gravedigger’s Song recalls the electric throb of Methamphetamine Blues. The one thing that's missing is an out and out rocker as there’s no Iggy Pop-esque Sideways in Reverse and the upbeat tracks (such as Riot In My House and the Dandy Warhols-esque churn of Quiver Syndrome) sound less unhinged than the opaque rock of Bubblegum.

I must apologise for all the Bubblegum comparisons but Lanegan has moved far from the pastoral folk of his early solo records and he eclipsed his work in the Screaming Trees a long time ago so I guess that's the most reference point. Whatever the case, Blues Funeral has been worth the wait of eight years since his last solo record, Lanegan, like PJ Harvey or Tom Waits, transcends fashion or trends and merely exists in his own musical world. I already sense this will be one of my favourite records of the year and this comes highly recommended.

Blues Funeral
is out in Australia on Friday (YAY!) and is streaming at Mojo here.



  1. Between this review and the Lenny Cohen, you're scooping me, this go 'round....
    Here's the reference that you're missing- Lanegan has been hanging out with European Disco folks, like SoulSavers, and UNKLE. So, I think I "get" it- his folkie side, he got out with Isobel Campbell. His Rocknroll, he does with Queens, his really morbid Dark side with Greg Dulli ( his only rival in those stakes, if you ask me. Yes, Nick Cave gets darker, but there's a mix of depression and seediness, and rage that only Lanegan and Dulli dare to approach) and his glam with the aforementioned Eurodisco sorts- The Mark Lanegan Band is where all of that colours the output, but this is his show- his unique window.

  2. Hey Matt, it's no scoop, as always you've got a great insight into this so I'd love to read your views on both records. I'd heard the Soulsavers but while I like UNKLE, I didn't have the record with Lanegan on it. You're right, it is a nice distillation of all those diverse areas but on first listen, the disco song just comes from nowhere. Sure it makes sense in the wider context but in the context of the album it's quite a shift. I have to say though, I do kind of adore disco Lanegan - it's such a strange marriage (his voice, that sound) but one that ultimately works.