The Daily , December '98 (

Mark Lanegan: Still Alone And Lost
by Ralph Schwartz

In the summer of 1995, I fell in love with Mark Lanegan, but I wound up instead with the woman who would become my wife. Perhaps I owed it to her. After all, she's the one who turned me on to Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1993), Lanegan's second solo album. She had fallen for Lanegan first, but I dismissed her feelings as the superficial sort that a lot of young women reserve for long-haired rock icons. My love, on the other hand, goes deep. I love him for his mind - more specifically, I love him for what he writes. My wife may rally to ”Borracho,’ the second track on Whiskey (”Fuck yourselves, I need some more room to breathe’), if only because the song allows her to get off on her own anger. But after I heard the title song of The Winding Sheet (1990) several times over (”The darkness dares/My eyes to close’) I experienced more than emotional release. I wished I had written the song myself.
Those who have heard Lanegan - most of them through his work as lead singer for Screaming Trees - love him for his voice. He possesses a rich, emotive baritone that ranges from reverberant to reedy, as if his voice were falling out from under him. But even his weak moments are well-turned; weakness, after all, is what he's about. Despite Lanegan's pedigree as a Screaming Tree, his own music resists placement within the commercial scene. What he has to offer, nobody in their right mind would buy. His roots are blues and country, but his is a deeply bruised strain of the blues.
During ”Riding the Nightingale,’ from Whiskey, Lanegan warns his listener, ”I'm gonna start cryin'’ - and he does, in an extended melodic wail, for the next minute. My wife says she hates this song, and I think I know why. Such private moments should not be recorded for mass consumption.
What Lanegan reveals of himself, if one is willing to take it in at full force, can only bring on hopelessness or narcotic escape. Lanegan has notoriously opted for the latter, and those who like to sniff out references to drug use will find them in his songs. He almost never sinks to the wanton glorification that Layne Staley of Alice in Chains is prone to in songs like ”God Smack.’ His references are more oblique, but they therefore leave a stronger chill: ”I'm not feeling any pain/but I know that it's real.’ It doesn't take a junkie to know where he's coming from.
Some variation can be discerned in Lanegan's three albums, which includes this year's Scraps At Midnight (all of his recordings are on Sub Pop). Even so, this variety is restricted to shades of black. Lanegan is ethereal in The Winding Sheet, a set of dirges for his own funeral set to dirty electric and weepy acoustic guitars. His pain becomes more coherent on Whiskey, which has a less solipsistic, more overt blues/country feel. On Scraps, Lanegan and Mike Johnson take no chances, revisiting the sound that worked well on Whiskey. Johnson plays lead guitar for Lanegan and arranges his albums; he also plays bass for Dinosaur Jr. and has released his own solo work on Up and TAG records. On Scraps at Midnight, Johnson has more opportunity to show off his twangy, tear-stained distortions on tracks like the opener, ”Sixteen.’
Lanegan's band, which includes Johnson and - these days - former Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd, played a sold-out show at the Showbox on November 19th. Perhaps they were warming up for their unusually high-profile gig tonight at the Key Arena ­ KNDD FM's winter music fest known as the ”Deck the Hall Ball.’ They will share the billing with Hole, Garbage and other purveyors of landfill-inspired music.
Regardless of the company Lanegan will keep tonight, last month the Showbox was his for the taking - and he took it. The band ripped through the set list, forsaking their acoustic instruments for a full-on electric show. Lanegan himself seemed to be amped, speeding through almost every song as if he intended the show merely as a sampler platter of his solo career. But Lanegan threw himself into ”Borracho,’ a rising, rocking desperation piece tainted with more than his usual dose of anger. After the song had whipped up the crowd that pressed tightly against the stage, the band walked off without ceremony. Within half a minute, they were back - Lanegan and Johnson only needed a smoke. Thus refreshed, they kept up the fast pace with ”Carnival’ (with Dave Kreuger on violin) and ”Because of This,’ which closes Scraps at Midnight. Like ”Borracho,’ these tunes expand slowly and inevitably, as if his self-loathing were a flower that bloomed for everyone else's enjoyment.
It's easy to dismiss Lanegan's three albums as self-piteous and redundant. But courage is his muse, and it allows him to speak to his audience about his torments, thereby absolving himself from them. ”Tonight I learned one valuable lesson,’ he said, after returning to the stage with his cigarette. But the rest of his statement was incomprehensible. Perhaps it was just an offhand joke - not that I heard anyone laugh. I can only hope that his valuable lessons aren't meant for me anyway. I don't have the voice to carry them. After the two-song encore, Lanegan and his band made their ultimate exit without so much as a good-bye. No matter. We all filed readily enough out of the Showbox and onto the cold pavement of First Ave.
We had heard all that our hearts would bear.