Mojo Magazine
August 2004

Big bubbles, no trouble
Polly Harvey, Queens of the Stone Age, Izzy Stradlin and Dean Ween roll up to help Mark Lanegan rock. Not that he needs much help, says Victoria Segal.
Mark Lanegan Band
Bubblegum ****

Being a survivor is a curious position to hold. While it should indicate vindication and success, a fine tribute to stamina and enduring talent, it also implies cockroaches, skin-of-your-teeth tenacity, by-a-fingernail stubbornness. By rights, Mark Lanegan should have expired in a pyre of plaid at the end of the '90s, a good tarring with the grunge brush helping him to burn. The subterranean-voiced singer of Washington State's Screaming Trees, he could just have been another North-western casualty, eaten up by the lifestyle or the industry. Yet Lanegan, unusually, has become cooler as he's aged, a trick none of his contemporaries have managed – unless you indulge the sentimental "forever young" rock myth surrounding Kurt Cobain.

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?
I started it in summer, 2002, but I didn’t use hardly anything from that first session. Some of it ended up on the EP but the bulk of the album was done in eight days around Christmas. The other half was done in a week, just me and Alain Johannes. So really two pretty small chunks of time. I ended up with around three hours of stuff. They wanted to put out a single and I asked, ‘could you put some B-sides on there?’ I wanted to do remixes for one or two of them. James Lavelle (the man from UNKLE) heard some of it and came to me and said, ‘I like some of your stuff.’ I said that’s kinda weird. But I liked the idea of it.

Polly Harvey sings on a couple of songs.
I met her at one of the Queens shows in London. She said she’d heard Whiskey for the holy ghost, so I immediately said, ‘Well I’m making one right now, will you come and sing on it?’ It was nerve-wraking because she is such a great singer and I’m such a huge fan. I was afraid that the rest of the record would suck in comparison to the ones she sang on. It made me work a little harder, I think, trying to make all of it good.

The Screaming Trees were famously dysfunctional. Was joining Queens illuminating?
I wish I could tell you that was the case. But I would be lying. All bands are dysfunctional but the difference with that band is that there a few stabalising factors. With the Trees there were none, It’s easy to find guys like me or like Nick or Josh in rock music. It’s pretty hard to find guys like Troy and Joey, the other guys in Queens, solid, good-natured, had-working, quiet guys. They’re the stabilising factor.

Does touring become different over the years?
I’ve done it a lot of different ways. I been insane and raised hell every single day for years, or I’ve put myself on a schedule of writing every day and got records written. The last go round with Queens we decided, let’s see what it’s like with a yoga instructor out with us, and try something we haven’t done.

You were all doing yoga together?
Three quarters of the band did. Three fifths. A couple of us did not. I did not do yoga. Me and Oliveri did not do yoga, we smoked cigarettes.