The Observer

Give me bourbon and bubblegum Mark Lanegan's power can conquer even the dullest venue

Sam Taylor
Sunday September 5, 2004
The Observer

Mark Lanegan Islington Academy, London N1

In the London flat where I have been staying for the past two weeks, I have been woken every morning at five o'clock by the sound of the man downstairs retching. It's a religious thing, apparently - he is voiding his soul of demons. I get my own back each night by playing Mark Lanegan's album, Bubblegum, at top volume. This, too, is the sound of a man voiding his soul of demons. Is it religious? Well, not exactly. But you could argue that Lanegan is the leader of a small cult.

What meagre fame he has accumulated over the years has been mostly by association. He was friends with Kurt Cobain and the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce, both of whom died young. Lanegan, despite a prodigious drugs-and-drink intake, survived. Read any article about him now and the word 'survivor' is bound to crop up. He has an appearance and a voice to match this label: a beat-up but noble face; a deadpan, laconic manner; and a vocal style reminiscent of Tom Waits.

He began his career 18 years ago as singer with grunge band the Screaming Trees, but since 1990 has produced a steady flow of solo albums, as well as joining, albeit briefly, Queens of the Stone Age, many people's choice for band of the decade. Two members of that (now defunct) band - Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri - turn up on the inappropriately named Bubblegum , which came out last month. But they are far from the only guests: PJ Harvey, Greg Dulli, formerly of the Afghan Whigs, and Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, among others, also lend their support.

None of these luminaries appears at Islington Academy on Wednesday, but that does not lessen the show's impact. Indeed, it perhaps intensifies it; with an unshifting (and unglamorous) line-up flanking Lanegan on stage - and the light-show so dim that they are all rendered as silhouettes - the focus is solely on the music.

In terms of songwriting, Lanegan has moved far away from the two-dimensional conventions of heavy rock towards a more mysterious, blues-soaked landscape. The opening two songs - 'When Your Number Isn't Up' and 'Hit the City' - illustrate this well. The first, about a man in a hotel room on the edge of death, is sparse and glowering, and would fit neatly on Nick Cave's album of piano ballads, The Boatman's Call. The second, an erotically charged rock number, could almost be a lost single from PJ Harvey's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Islington Academy is not the most atmospheric of venues: lousy acoustics and the bars brighter than the stage. It is to Lanegan's credit that he overcomes these handicaps to give a performance which, even if only fitfully, makes you believe you are in a bourbon-smelling shack somewhere near the Mississippi.

The songs, though all of a high quality, are a bit up and down in terms of the intensity of their delivery. For me, there are three high points. The first is 'Resurrection Song', a ghostly three-minute ballad from 2001's Field Songs, here prolonged into something immense, slow-burning and mesmerically repetitive. The second is a tender cover of soul singer Brook Benton's straightforward love song, 'I'll Take Care of You'.

The third is 'Methamphetamine Blues', which, on record, sounded not much more than a generic industrial-grind rock song. Here, however, it is transformed into an awesome steamroller of noise; a crucible of desire and fear, sex and death; the sound of Lanegan's demons escaping into the night.