A cinematic flood of sensation from a person turned inside-out
Lucy Sheehan
11:43 5th May 2020

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Mark Lanegan finished writing his “nerve-shredding” memoir Sing Backwards and Weep without any reward of catharsis – “all I got was a Pandora’s box of pain…I went way in.” The relief came when he began writing music again afterwards, culminating in his confessional new album Straight Songs of Sorrow – a cinematic flood of sensation and abrasive energy; a person turned inside-out. 

The album opens with Lanegan’s voice rising over a blizzard of white noise and playful synths. ‘I Wouldn’t Want to Say’ is like a late night rewind, rushing past flickering scenes of shapeless horror, tenderness, self-annihilation, longing and survival against all odds. This lyrical flood, like an exorcism, is “the explanation, the beginning and middle and end of that entire period of time, the encapsulation…” Towards the end of the track Lanegan casts his life in late night corner shop light and slips the lines “I’m still hoping/Still open all night.”

It's a skillfully oblique moment that poises the listener teetering between survival and destruction, wondering whether Lanegan is still hoping to “welcome death” as the previous lines express, or for “the love that’s right” that follows. The song is an electric pause in no man’s land before we plunge into the album.   

The album owes much of its storied feeling to quick tonal changes. In ‘Apples from a Tree’, whirring synth-based abstraction give way suddenly to finger picking, like a new chapter. There’s an almost Garden of Eden innocence to ‘Apples from a Tree’ in its pastoral ambience, as if we’re buried in a bleary memory: "you are…the mother I never knew/The love I never had.” It’s an interlude of sweetness, gone as quickly as it arrived.

A similar moment is ‘Hanging On (For DRC)’ a fleeting two-minute portrait of companionship in adversity about fellow Seattle scene survivor Dylan Carson – “Only you and the devil know where I’ve been.” Tonal shifts aren’t limited to acoustic songs however - ‘Bleed All Over’ with its kinetic beat and sparse, jarring instrumentation emerges out of a dirge and is a brilliantly Bowie-esque moment - “Baby, baby, baby I’ma bleed all over/See my mascara run”.

‘Ketamine’ shows off Lanegan’s distinctive ability to summon the most searing darkness. The lyrics are inspired by song’s guest vocalist, Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold, who witnessed Genesis P-Orridge being visited by a priest in hospital and responding ‘No thank you sir, I don’t need any last rites, but if you have any ketamine that would be perfect.’ Viciously dark and funereal, its plodding tempo and eerie arrangements bring to mind Lanegan’s classic The Winding Sheet cover ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. The song similarly showcases Lanegan’s manipulation of classic blues lyric structures - ‘If I had a razor, I would cut you everywhere…If I had a rifle, I’d shoot straight up in the air’.

Lanegan’s favourite new compositional tool, a miniature computer-synth called the Organelle, seems responsible for much of the record’s playful, multi-dimensional feeling. Compared to Bubblegum’s more structured use of electronics, Lanegan seems free to expand lyrically with fewer constraints. ‘Internal Hourglass Discussion’ has a freewheeling poetry to it, a brittle randomness that evokes wired, exhausted wandering – “A burst of blackbirds in the sky/Far past the zenith of my high/Has given me the will to change/But I’m so tired I’m wide awake.”

Two songs provide the album’s thematic centerpiece. In ‘Stockholm City Blues’ -  “No one can tell me that enough’s enough” - sparse guitars and romantic strings create the kind of agonizing pathos worthy of a Darren Aronofsky film. However it is ‘Skeleton Key’ that contains the album’s most striking lyrical moments. Over an epic seven-minute progression, Lanegan unfolds the supreme loneliness of survival in a world where few came out alive - “Is it my fate to be the last one standing?” The album’s quality of catharsis and brutal self-awareness seems to flow out of this song, and appropriately provides its title - “I will sing you all a sweet, straight song of sorrow.” 

Despite its cinematic quality, Straight Songs of Sorrow contains no glamorous Hollywood story arc through hell and into heaven: this album is emotionally complex, with real horror, real tenderness – a real story of survival.

Straight Songs Of Sorrow is released on 8 May 2020 via Heavenly.

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Photo: Press