Undisputedly one of the forefathers of alternative rock, proven with his time in Seattle’s pioneering Screaming Trees, Mark Lanegan has lived through grunge, desert rock and everything after — bruised and battered but better for it. Despite chugging along and releasing solo records almost yearly since the early 10s, 2020 seems to have shown a renewed interest in Lanegan, likely due to his already controversial memoir that was recently published, and you know that I’ll giving that a read for some of that juicy (Chris) goss.
Released in conjunction with that book, his twelfth solo album Straight Songs of Sorrow seems to present Lanegan in his comfort zone, settling into his role as grunge’s answer to Johnny Cash; a grizzled outlaw in all-black, a take-no-shit vet of the genre. In saying this, though, it should be noted that the majority of his solo output, especially recently, has been generally underwhelming, with his stylistic tendencies not progressing or even varying across substantially long albums. Clocking in at exactly an hour, time’ll tell if Straight Songs of Sorrow will have you singing just that.
In the spirit of transparency, I should say I’m not that keen on Mark Lanegan as a songwriter, personally. While his sporadic appearances on Queens of the Stone Age releases have been giving me life since ’02 (okay not really, I was 1) and he is undoubtedly cool as fuck, his solo albums have never really taken my total fancy (Bubblegum does have its moments though). Moreover, his work with Screaming Trees, particularly the early stuff, has always felt like fuzzy Beatles worship and little more.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I found that Straight Songs of Sorrow offers about as much artistic progression from 2019’s Somebody’s Knocking as months between the two releases — minimal. Much like everything Lanegan has put out in the past decade, the songwriting has this very distinct, gothic mood that, when left to stagnate as it has, becomes weary and tiresome very quickly. The melodies, both vocal and instrumental, are dulling and repetitive throughout; some even sounding like With the Beatles played at half-speed — some things never change, I guess.
But perhaps a comparison to the Fab Four is a little too generous considering the actual state of the hooks on this album. Seriously, over each tiresome listen I’ve had, a couple of things have admittedly grown on me, if only slightly. However, I don’t know how I could ever even tolerate the sheer laziness on some of these choruses. Whether it’s bewildering clumsiness of “Am I gonna/Gonna lose/Am I gonna lose this/Am I gonna/Am I gonna lose this game of love gonna lose gonna gonna” (maybe not that bad but not far off), or the bang-your-head-against-a-dulling-concrete-wall of “I wanted, I wanted, I wanted/I wanted, I wanted, I wanted/I wanted something to believe in” on Bleed All Over — it’s just toss. Especially from such a credible legend like Mark.
That said, the tiredness of Straight Songs of Sorrow isn’t helped by consistent lack-of-dynamics from Lanegan’s vocals. From someone with such a famed and iconic voice, it’s mightily disheartening to hear Lanegan sounding so warbly and aged; all the while showing a criminal lack of range — from such heights as the gravelly but soulless baritone to the hollow upper register, we’ve got it all folks. A track like Skeleton Key shows the aforementioned warbliness like cold, hard daylight — with Lanegan sounding as fatigued as David Bowie on Blackstar, and somehow more lifeless than David Bowie today. His dry, staggered approach just screams Mojave grit, but it seems, ironically enough considering his beef with Liam Gallagher, that he’s dining more on attitude than actual performance. Now, I’m not saying Lanegan is anywhere near as insufferable as either Gallagher, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
Lyrically, there isn’t much freshness to be had either. As with his last few records, the abstract, Southern Gothic characterisation that Lanegan employs on Straight Songs of Sorrow remains a contrastingly intriguing and uncompelling facet of the album. While he does consistently stick with the schtick, he, as have multitudes of Nick Cave subsidiaries, have been to this well so many times that it doesn’t yield much in the way of satisfying or unique lyricism anymore. While there are glimmers of wit among the tracklist, I do quite like the opening track’s “Rapture or apocalypse/Actress or receptionist” line, there’s simply too much coal for the gems to shine.
Instrumentally, however, is where we get to real staleness of what makes Straight Songs of Sorrow such a chore to listen to. To Lanegan’s credit, there is a healthy amount of sonic and stylistic variation across the album’s 15 tracks, with some taking an industrial grime, and others having the world-weariness of a neo-folk ballad. Despite this, though, the lack of tempo changes and melodic departures only accentuates how much this album draggggggsssss across its 60min runtime. Every song is downtrodden and melancholic, all at about 5bpm, to the point where it’d be irresponsible to listen to this album while driving, lest you fall asleep at the wheel. Moreover, as if I haven’t shat on this record enough, the production, while nowhere near as squeaky clean as my nightmares would have you believe, still has nowhere near the amount of roughness and character that a voice like Mark Lanegan’s requires. It’s all just energy-siphoning.
Overall, Straight Songs of Sorrow, while a slight improvement on Somebody’s Knocking, is still not one of Mark Lanegan’s strongest. The stubborn refusal to add any colour to any of the performances results in an album that is stale, dragging and uncompelling. As much as Lanegan is the grizzled anti-hero of alternative rock, there’s nothing here that even comes close to validating such a legacy. Unless you’re a fan of what Lanegan’s been doing recently, and there are a-plenty and that is fine, I can’t recommend this.