The Magazine, 1997

Mark Lanegan's Whiskey For The Holy Ghost
by Micheal Koster

Do you remember the feeling you had the first time you heard the Stones crank out "Honky Tonk Women"? The flood of emotion when you first played Dylan’s "Blood on the Tracks" and just couldn’t believe the notes pouring out of your speakers? It’s that inarticulate, slightly dumbing sensation that comes with the recognition that you’ve stumbled onto something stupendous but cannot articulate exactly what it is that’s hit you square in the gut.

I’ve been playing Mark Lanegan’s moody 1993 folk rock release Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, regularly for four years and it still grabs. It seems strange to be so taken with a songwriter whose muse is located somewhere in the depths of despair, with a perverse poetry coaxed to the surface by a fifth of Jack Daniel’s Black Label and an incredible voice. Maybe I’m just a closet nihilist. But I’m convinced with the surety of a disciple that his warm, gritty, borderline-bluesy baritone is one of the most captivating voices ever recorded.

Lanegan is a sort of Leonard Cohen of Seattle, enamored of the eternal sigh but not guilty of the polka schmaltz to which Cohen is too often driven. Both singers sport vocal cords that sound as if someone scrubbed them raw with low-grit sandpaper and soaked them in high-proof bourbon for extended periods, but Lanegan is unique in his ability to brood without pissing us off. Or just plain boring us. His voice is too damn intriguing, and his simple yet potent lyrics are just ambiguous enough to suck us deeper into his existential vortex with each listen. Lanegan’s subject matter floats naturally from urban disillusionment ("Juarez") to backwoodsy fatalism ("The River Rise") to woeful tales of lost love ("Ugly Sunday"). But there is something in his voice that transcends the rubble of his lyrics.

This is not rock ’n’ roll. It is an honest, impassioned hybrid of folk, rock, and gospel. When I say folk, I’m not talking about high-voiced happy strummers singing old Woody Guthrie tunes by the fire with Mike Brady smiles on their faces (no offense to Woody), or some hippie coven competing to see who can most sound like Peter, Paul, and Mary. Lanegan falls in the anti-Indigo Girls school of folk; the school of grit. Leadbelly, Guthrie himself, Dylan—the best folk has always had a rock edge, and Lanegan is way out there teetering on the precipice.

Both of his solo albums on Seattle’s Sub Pop label—Holy Ghost and 1990’s The Winding Sheet—are acoustic-based, but he’s not afraid to use electric guitars, albeit quite subtly. On Holy Ghost, there’s no small amount of finger picking on both electric guitar and violin. Throughout, he and his backing musicians have mastered the art of simplicity, as is evident in the few well-placed saxophone and violin flourishes that grace his recordings. Listen to how guitarist Mike Johnson bends the strings in the countryish "House a Home," paralleling Lanegan’s vocal strains, all the while accompanied by plaintive, unassuming violin—what an unbelievably unpretentious, bittersweet lament.

There is a certain regional quality to Lanegan’s music. Just as Robert Johnson had Delta dirt clinging to his shoes no matter how hard he shined them, and Woody Guthrie had the scent of the boxcar, Lanegan’s got the damp of the Northwest fused to his vocal cords. All this may seem incongruous to those who know Lanegan from his much higher profile gig fronting the Screaming Trees, a Seattle grunge quartet. While Lanegan’s best friend and musical confidante, Kurt Cobain, exploded into popular music with the biggest bang since The Beatles touched down in America, Screaming Trees have managed only a small pop. That’s because they’ve never really congealed, and Lanegan’s solo outings blow anything they’ve done out of the water. This tree is a singer, one of the truly great ones I think, not a screamer. His whiskey voice was made for folk, not heavy rock.

Cobain actually backed Lanegan on a couple of Winding Sheet cuts, including Leadbelly’s classic "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?," a song that would later appear in its definitive version on Nirvana’s low-key posthumous Unplugged. No doubt Cobain would have helped out on Holy Ghost as well if he hadn’t gotten too famous and too busy, shooting himself dead in the process.

Lanegan possesses the same edginess as his dead friend. If fame is the beast that finally pushes guys like this over the edge, he’s got nothing to worry about. Holy Ghost is arguably one of the greatest folk rock recordings ever produced. Record store geeks who live and breathe music may get disturbingly excitable when you mention his name, and anyone with a serious Sub Pop habit indulges in regular doses of Lanegan’s bruised folk. Despite all that, most folks have never heard of the guy. Now you’ve heard of him. If you give these recordings a try, I’ll wager you’ll find little else out there that professes such sadness so beautifully.