The Stranger, December 2003

Mark Lanegan's Scars and Steel

by Jennifer Maerz

Mark Lanegan Band w/Enemy, Mike Johnson Fri Dec 12, Showbox, 8 pm, $15.

Add the power of Mark Lanegan's frequently morose metaphors to his evocative, battle-scarred vocals and songs full of complicated characters, and you get something like the complex, aloof parts Nick Nolte would play--the gruff man with his vulnerability encased in ice who's lost his lover by the time the chill melts, or the fallen junkie so crippled for the fix that his world seesaws between apologies and addiction.

Accompanied by the gentle acoustics of Mike Johnson's guitar on 1998's "Waiting on a Train," Lanegan sings about giving up on life and love for a slow chemical suicide: "It's time that I was leavin'/shoulda left me here long ago/you'd rather see me sorry/than knowin' what I know.... From the play of lights below/is that church bells ringin'/or my whistle blowin'/I don't care/I'm gone/shootin' up and down the tracks." You never know if the songs were written with an acute sense that any attempt at progress was jammed by inner demons, or if the songs came out as slight victories over the fuck-ups that are always creeping back in through the cracks. Either way, they're often coupled with a subtle, bone-dry sense of humor that makes Lanegan's work feel more honest than hopeless.

Of the possibility that his history takes human dimension in his songs, Lanegan says, "I think my ex-wife once said that I had several personalities and none of them good, so in that way maybe they're characters." The raspy-throated singer is speaking from Montpellier, France, where he's touring in support of his latest EP, Here Comes That Weird Chill (Methamphetamine Blues, Extras & Oddities). Even in the impersonal setting of a telephone interview, Lanegan's voice contains that unintentionally seductive growl of early-morning pillow talk. But it seems that no matter when you speak to him, his responses will be delivered in the sandpaper-and-velvet voice that also sounds like the result of an endless and unforgiving bender, whether or not there's actually been one to blame.

And it's that distinctive voice--one that possibly only Neurosis' Steve Von Till gets close to in his own bewitching solo material--that burrows Lanegan's music under his fans' skin, from his days as the frontman for Screaming Trees through his solo work and into his efforts over the last three years with Queens of the Stone Age. On Songs for the Deaf, Lanegan adds definition to QOTSA's musclebound rock, cracking open solid weights like "A Song for the Dead" with dusky vocal delivery.

Here Comes That Weird Chill is a teaser of outtakes (and one Captain Beefheart cover) offered before Lanegan's next full-length, Bubblegum, comes out in February. As with his past efforts, it balances quieter introspective ballads, like the piano-driven "Lexington Slow Down," with louder, heavier rock songs, like the high-volume industrial machinery of "Methamphetamine Blues." Always one to collaborate, Lanegan includes work by QOTSA's Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, and Ween's Dean Ween, among others (Bubblegum will feature vocals from Polly Jean Harvey). The one credit missing from the mix is Mike Johnson, part of Lanegan's songwriting team since the beginning of his solo career. Lanegan simply attributes Johnson's absence to the fact that "he decided he didn't want to play on this album," but says that without his previous partner involved, he changed his billing from Mark Lanegan to Mark Lanegan Band. "The other records were so much Mike Johnson's thing as well--at least in my mind," he says. "I don't know if he'd say the same thing." The name change created a "distinction between those records and whatever comes next."

If Here Comes That Weird Chill is any indication, the future holds more ominous narratives about the issues of needles and the damage done, treating the road to death with a mix of detached reporting ("Skeletal History") and wistful sentiment (the EP's highlight, "Wish You Well"). But one of the intricacies of Lanegan's work is that even when the words describe a broken man, there's always strength and conviction to his delivery, a beautiful set of contradictions that makes him seem equally like a man made of steel and a lost soul plagued by scars. Either way he's always going to be the one to beat the odds.