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.