The Alestile , November '99

Mark Lanegan Gets High Marks
by David Tatum

Mark Lanegan must be the new king of rock 'n' roll because no one else has released the quality of music he has lately. Lanegan's new album on Sub Pop, "I'll Take Care of You," follows last year's shockingly ethereal "Scraps at Midnight" and ups an already high ante. The album is produced by Lanegan's longtime collaborator Mike Johnson and features Ben Sheperd on bass. Lanegan has released nearly 100 songs in the 1990s, both as a solo artist and with the Screaming Trees. That fact alone would be remarkable, but the story that goes with it sounds like a rock 'n' roll myth. Lanegan's odyssey from the brink of fame to the dark halls of the half-remembered and forgotten is as sad and ironic as his return is invigorating. Lanegan joined the Screaming Trees in 1986, five years before the grunge bandwagon rumbled out of Seattle. The Trees were one of Seattle's charter bands, along with Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana. When the doors of popular success were kicked open by Nirvana in 1991, the Trees got a morsel of the pie when the single "Nearly Lost You" and the album "Sweet Oblivion" became minor hits. The Screaming Trees had a unique sound, and Lanegan had perhaps the best voice in rock. Lanegan's songs are what really set the band apart, however. His hauntingly sad melodies and mournful lyrics set a new standard of melancholic beauty. If the world made more sense, it would have been Lanegan and the Screaming Trees that sold millions of albums instead of their Seattle contemporaries. Alas, a prophet is seldom heeded in his own land. Success was a tricky tempest to navigate, and "Nearly Lost You" was a short trip through utopia for Lanegan and the Trees. As it did for many of Lanegan's friends from Seattle, heroin got in his way. A lot of his friends died, and death got next to him. Maybe something inside him couldn't handle the winning. Maybe he had become something he wasn't fond of, so he ruined what he was. "What can you do?" he asked No Depression magazine. "I spent a lot of time dwelling on (things), you know. Not intentionally, but you just can't help it. You live in a constant state of dread, sorry about something that already happened. For me, eventually I gotta do something to get rid of that feeling. And that's where my more unwholesome appetites come into play, because then I don't have to think about anything." Something was eating at Lanegan, and the drugs that let him forget were devouring him slowly. After a long tour with the Trees in 1992 and 1993, Lanegan made his second mesmerizing solo album, "Whiskey For the Holy Ghost," in 1994. "I don't understand this big parade, it's a five-star decoration day/ Look, my hands are stained, I'd wash them in the water, but the water fell away," he sang in "Shooting Gallery." The shooting gallery Lanegan was singing of was not a target range or a pool hall. The album was a brilliant chronicle of a man being drawn out of the garden and into the abyss, and the songs are torments of strange delight. His grip was slipping, but what a splendid spectacle it made. The Screaming Trees' 1996 album, "Dust," seemed like the end for Mark Lanegan. The cracks and fissures he had been skirting for years had nearly swallowed him whole. Some of the songs on the album were better than others, but Lanegan had simply dug up some old bones. His best singing on the album had the urgent sincerity of a dying man. Those who saw Lanegan on the "Dust" tour noticed he did not look well. He clung to the microphone like a specter, rail thin. He was constantly retreating to the back of the stage to pop pills. The album and tour did not do well. Epic Records dropped the Screaming Trees like a bad habit. Lanegan then hit bottom and stayed. He wrote no new songs for the next two years and sold everything he owned to support his addiction. If the story ended here, it would be no surprise. What's surprising is it didn't, and redemption is the best tale of all. Lanegan was arrested for heroin possession in 1997 and went to jail. He then managed to turn his life around. He entered a drug rehabilitation late that year and recorded "Scraps at Midnight" within two weeks of getting out. The album was universally lauded by critics, but it didn't sell. Most masterpieces don't. A year later, Lanegan's new album, "I'll Take Care of You," has appeared. This is the album of cover tunes Lanegan has been talking about making for years. The album's press release states, "This album is a tribute to the artists and the art of the song." It is a lot more than that. Lanegan has the best voice around since Nat "King" Cole smoked himself into the grave. Some of his past music is too loud and competes with his voice. This album is stripped down to the essentials, and Lanegan's voice carries each song. Although this is a cover album, you have probably never heard of most of the songs. Lanegan covers pre-Dylan folk artists like Tim Harden, Fred Neil and Dave Von Ronk, as well as Bobby Bland, Buck Owens and others. Lanegan opens the album with "Carry Home" by the Gun Club, a post-punk band from the early 80s. Lanegan had been working on some songs a couple years ago with Gun Club's lead singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but Pierce died. This eerie song is a fitting tribute to a friend who didn't make it. The real gem on the album is "Consider Me" by soul great Eddie Floyd. Lanegan would never have written a soul song such as this, so it is strange and revelatory to hear him sing it. Most artists can only imitate others when they cover a song, but Lanegan can make the songs his own. "Boogie Boogie" closes the album, and the song is just brutal. It has a stoned, bizarre groove that sounds 30 years old. None of these songs sound like they were recorded in this decade or even the two before. The compact disc actually sounds like vinyl. As radiant as this album is, it will surely remain in the same obscurity as the rest of Lanegan's albums. That's just fine with me because a secret love is the best of all. In a just world, Lanegan, not Ricky Martin, would be playing at the Kiel Center, but life is never fair. There must be an answer to why an artist so gifted can be ignored for so long, but it is not a simple one. I've been in college too long to have easy answers. Suffice to say, Lanegan is the greatest, so if you want an album you will never forget, remember to pick this one up.