Melody Maker, January 29, 1994
The Stud Brothers
Brilliant, of course. But first a little
Mark Lanegan is the singer with Screaming Trees, one of Seattle's better
but lesser known bands, whose 1992 album, "Sweet Oblivion",
is one of the greatest records ever made. The Trees, as we've said before,
are as American as apple pie and the National Rifle Association - four
huge, sometimes corpulent, cartographers of the lost soul of shitsville.
They sound a little like The Byrds, Black Sabbath and The Birthday Party
(Lanegan reckons they sound like Free). They're a GREAT American rock
Mark Lanegan is a small-town boy who, had it not been for punk rock, beer,
and a deeply-held conviction that life is deeply unfair, would've ended
up working in the Ellensburg slaughterhouse. And his songs, whether solo
ro with the Trees, are often about the nightmare life he might have led.
This is Mark's second solo album. The first, 1990's "The Winding
Sheet" featuring Nirvana's Kurtd Cobain and Krist Novoselic and mostly
co-written with Dinosaur Jr's Mike Johnson, was one of the late Sounds
albums of the year is is shortly to enjoy a timely re-release.
"Whiskey For The Holy Ghost" is a little less despairing than
it's predecessor. Nevertheless, it's a monument to morbid, magnificant
self-absorption. If that sounds like Lanegan's got his head up his arse,
well, maybe. But the point is that very few singers have the nerve, humility
and arrogance to lay themselves so bare (in Lanegan's case, so flayed),
and fewer still have the skill to render that nakedness so plausible and
involving. "Whiskey" is a dense but intensely moving piece of
work. Lanegan, freed from the stricture of a band, gives full rein to
his voice and his beautifully pessimistic perspective. Overall, the atmosphere
is at once twitchy and slothful, a haze of terminal apathy perpetually
punctured by despair and anguish. Songs don't so much reach a climax as
rise to a lazy crescendo, Lanegan's voice veering from a perfectly pitched
ghostly tenor to a red raw nicotine growl.
Throughout, as the title suggests, he invokes religious imagery - angels
(non-existant), gates (closed), halos (fake), and a most definitely dead
Jesus Christ - all of which, we presume, appear and are swiftly dispatched
in order to remind us and Lanegan that the point is that there is no hope.
Even when things come good, when he meets his perfect love ("Sunrise"),
they quickly turn bad. He leaves, believeing himself thoroughly undeserving.
Both in sentiment and sound, The song recalls Cohen's "Famous Blue
Raincoat". Oddly, this is the closest we get to a story. Oddly, because
so many of the tracks sound like ballads. There's always the vaguely ambient
twang of a guitar, the maudlin quiver of a fiddle, a heavy acoustic strum
and, of course, lanegan's unmistakeable Northwestern drawl.
There's only one real rocker present, "Borracho". with Lanegan
begging forgiveness and swearing revenge over screaming bloody guitar.
But, as with the other 12 songs (there always seem to be an unlucky 13
tracks on Lanegan's solo albums), past sins are unspecified, Lanegan preferring
instead to contemplate whether time will redeem him. Time is a word that
crops up a lot, as is Shame.
Often Lanegan's meditations attain an almost Gothic quality (albeit American
Gothic, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne or "At Close Range"). "Kindoms
Of rain", where Lanegan's doomed protagonist "stoops to feed
the crows scraps of truth already cold," is underscored by the mournful
tones of a church organ. On "Pendulum" and "Judas Touch",
the skewed chime of a guitar combines with Lanegan's deep, soporific voice
to create minimalist epics. Nothing much happens, but both feel forbidding
Throughout, Lanegan's message is that we are all our own worst enemies.
it may not be particularly original, but rarely has it been put in so
startling and compelling a way. After listening to "Whiskey For The
Holy Ghost" a dozen times, the image that most readily springs to
mind is of someone deliberately and diligently digging their own grave
and then wondering what on earth they're doing six feet under. "I
think I dug too deep", sings Lanegan on "Riding On The Nightingale".
His voice is pitched somewhere between resignation and yearning.