Big bubbles, no trouble
While it's hard to imagine Eddie Vedder's new solo album causing much of a frisson, Lanegan, a man with the face of a Wanted: Dead or Alive poster, has increasingly refined his music into high-quality outlaw Americana. He's become the embodiment of the stranger in town, appearing and disappearing at will with his moody solo albums, his songs echoing behind him like a set of saloon doors slamming shut. His recent comradeship with Queens of the Stone Age – until their surprising, depressing split, very much the modern rock motherlode – only enhanced his reputation, his tour of service with those notorious hedonists Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri a stem-cell shot of rejuvenating rock'n'roll.
Bubblegum is, at core, updated blues – yet, while previous solo records saw Lanegan and his six-feet-under voice stuck at the graveside, there's much more light and shade here. None of these songs are exactly merry, largely dealing with fatal bliss or blissed-out fatalism, but musically and texturally, they seem more diverse, complex, striding rangily from seamy rock'n'roll to soulful spirituals. There's not just a little black cloud over his head anymore – there's a whole weather system. Admittedly, Lanegan uses a pretty well-worn lexicon – like, say, Spritualized's Jason Pierce, you know where you are with his universe of highways and Jesus, cold turkey and holy ground. "From my fingertips, my cigarette throws ashes to the ground/I'd stop and talk to the girls who work this street but I've got business further down," he sings on the woozy One Hundred Days, and you don't need an A-Z to work out which road to nowhere he's on. A favourable reaction to this album, then, very much depends on accepting this vein of imagery, the classic street-life iconography.
Given its songs of experience, calling the album Bubblegum might at first seem comically flippant – but anyone feeling uncharitable could say this drugs-and-depression shtick is just as disposable and cliché-ridden as the sparkliest of chart-pop.
Yet, just as painters never get bored with nativities and crucifixions, so Lanegan's purist strain of rock'n'roll manages to tap its own passion with style. Maybe – if the issue of authenticity still matters – it's because Lanegan has what might be called a colourful (if largely black-clad) past. Better still, it's because his effortless empathy with the dark side has given him the ability to find new twists, new angles. Like Little Willie John should be the kind of retrograde blues track that makes The White Stripes seem like Kraftwerk – yet while the railroad chug of the percussion aims for an old-style Americana that's as modern as a barroom spittoon, the layered density and lyrical resonance gives it a crisp new edge. "When I heard the news that night I went down like a satellite," sings Lanegan beautifully, before adding "Lord I'm all alone tonight/Don't the sun love his satellite? I don't know."
The Queens of the Stone Age road-rage of Driving Death Valley Blues seems like a sweat-stained bundle of junkie-clichés ("Don't wanna go cold turkey") but it's powered by such combustible, kerosene-soaked conviction that even dragging Jesus into things is forgivable.
It's the feeling of almost imperceptible menace that makes Bubblegum so unsettling, a record that focuses on the calm before the storm and sometimes after the storm, too, a record about losing things – your self, your way, your mind. On the soul-rich spiritual of Morning Glory Wine, the lovely fluting in the background can't hide the glint of the sword-blade over Lanegan's head while the intimate whisper of Bombed – with flesh-warm backing vocals from Wendy Rae Fowler – offers a metaphor-rich sense of danger. "When I'm bombed I stretch like bubblegum," he sings, revealing the true source of the title and explaining the psychic stress that weighs heavy on the whole album.
At times, though, he makes it all sound like a lot of fun. "It bites like a fish and kicks like a horse," declares the dirty thrust of Sideways In Reverse, giving the requisite charge of street-slang before a filthy refrain of "going down going down/give me your love". Hit The City, featuring Polly Harvey on bleached-out keening, is a blast of needling staccato, while Methamphetamine Blues – guitar and drums provided by Josh Homme, backing vocals by Nick Oliveri – adds adrenalin to Feelgood Hit Of The Summer's menu of narcotics.
Yet balancing the conspicuous consumption of the dark side is the purgative quest for redemption. The Everybody Hurts gospel chords of Strange Religion take a turn into Sparklehorse territory, while Come To Me – again with Harvey – is a little bit of human contact amid all the introspection. The enchanting One Hundred Days talks up hopes of a ship coming in with heartbreakingly little faith: "There is no morphine I'm only sleeping/There is no crime to dreams like this…" while the timeless lament of Wedding Dress could be a dank folkloric fable from Polly Harvey's own work. "Will you walk with me underground and forgive all my sicknesses and sorrows? Will you be shamed if I shake like I'm dying/When I fall to my knees and I'm crying?/Will you visit me where my body rests? Will you put on that long white dress?" It certainly gives you some insight into his idea of faith. You're with him for the long haul.
Bubblegum is, in many respects, classic Americana, at its simplest level, wide-screen loneliness, the sound of rattling boxcars and rattling lungs, of dusty roads and endless journeys. As Wedding Dress shows, however, Lanegan demands more than a straightforward coast-to-coast road trip. As befits a survivor, he demands commitment. And as he travels through those parts of the map marked "Here Be Dragons" with his eyes and heart open, you're happy to give it.
When did you start making this album?
Polly Harvey sings on a couple of
The Screaming Trees were famously
dysfunctional. Was joining Queens illuminating?
Does touring become different over
You were all doing yoga together?