|first appeared in The Stranger, February 21 - 27,
The Church of Mark Lanegan
by Danny Housman
Mark Lanegan, THE Roky Erickson/Jim Morrison-influenced frontsman for the Screaming Trees, released an excellent solo LP in 1989, The Winding Sheet, made in collaboration with guitarist Mike Johnson (who subsequently picked up the bass to play for Dinosaur Jr.), and other friends. It was unusual for Sub Pop at the time, but so are the Walkabouts, and if I had to think of anyone in Seattle who you would even want to vaguely associate with Lanegan's enigmatic solo work, it would be them (uh, let's see, fatalism, rural mysticism, electrified roots). Anyone who ever thought of Lanegan as a "limited" singer based on a hoarsely-belted Trees show had evidence that amidst the howls, growls, and raspy wrath is an elementally forceful and terrifyingly expressive instrument. The man is able to imply great thought and effort behind a faint whisper.
Lanegan, at least traditionally, is a decidedly limited singer. Whiskey For the Holy Ghost (Sub Pop) brings you to another world of song, a sub-realm of vocals, where personality, pain, and sometimes the very sound of Lanegan snaking around and straining against his limits make up a spectrum not previously audible. Like all the grays in an ashtray, Lanegan's expressiveness becomes intriguing when you learn how to listen to it (and he ain't giving up smoking anytime soon). It isn't hard to warm up to Whiskey: the melodies and arrangements work on a similar level--simple yet dense, their puzzling magic will slowly engulf your ears. Submerge with me, if you will, into a musical Atlantis.
The first sounds on Whiskey are a far-off whistling coupled with eerie wind chimes--exactly like what a child's first memory of music might be. Layered, rolling guitars and a faint earthy organ slope into a gorgeous, textured melody that sounds like a ritual of discovering and gathering in the earth. Lanegan is exhausted but urgent, trying not to give in to the self-doubt that threatens to engulf him. "Ah, the river rise/And she's a mile high/Is this worth time?/'Cause I could fall, like a tear/There's nothing else I can do."
That song gives way to "Borracho," Spanish for "beastly drunk"--certainly the album's most overtly gut wrenching, fever pitched cry from a private hell. Starting from feedback and a military drum roll, Lanegan and Johnson gradually work up distorted guitars, building behind a horrible DT hallucination. Even totally immersed in despair, Lanegan's imagery and delivery are sublimely evocative and sensual: "Here comes the devil buying a round/ Warm whiskey for every ghost...A fool can feed on a notion/ Sees and believes/ And this desert turns to ocean over me." A rip-roaring barroom confrontation ensues on guitar, leaving a bruised Lanegan to pick up the pieces. This song will hold you tightly in a vise until its last chords fade.
A video was actually made for the next song, "House a Home," a lament mixing Dylanesque, "It Ain't Me Babe" sentiments with a self aware sadness; a violin provides the sympathetic shoulder. Then we get "Kingdoms of Rain," featuring a chilling acoustic melody. A bit of organ pipes in, and Lanegan's voice has a startling intimacy. You might jump and look around when he asks, "Are those halos in your hair?/ Or Diamonds shining there?"
"Carnival" is an invigorating, strange tale featuring a violin and bass both plucked and bowed and a briskly strummed guitar over Lanegan's dream-like memory of a very weird country fair--Jim Rose meets "Sugar Mountain." Kids seem to be walking around in a body-snatched haze. It's no use trying to follow the circular lyrics to a stop: "The girls are dead in their eyes/ Just standing around like their hypnotized/ Follow me back to the freakshow/ crawling all over a carnival." The violin takes the song out in a fever.
In terms of the emotional wallop of its vocal performance, "Nightengale" is the record's centerpiece. Lanegan barely begins the invocation, "Dying, mama, barely breathing on a bed of nails." Tad (yes that Tad) shimmies the cymbals and triangles, jazz bassist Phil Sparks swims in Johnson's acoustic currents while background vocals from Krisha Augerot float over Lanegan's gripping narrative. Even after 50 listens, I'm still not clear what's it's about, but it has to do with being alone with one's mortality and reaching out to someone else in vain. Take this song to bed and dream of Lanegan shaking his finger at doom in a poetic fury of Christ imagery, angels and nightingales. He warns, "Better run for cover babe, you better hide/ It just don't do to wait til time decides," reflects, "Time, time" and suddenly exclaims, "I need a little more time!" Minutes later, in a black mist, he moans, "I'm going to cry now/Cry/You're making me cry now" His pleas are simply lacerating.
Whiskey was made over four years when the time and people were present; several different producers, together with Lanegan and Mike Johnson, chose the songs from three times as much material. Despite it's personal intensity, Whiskey is free from affectation, due in part to the masterful work of Johnson.
If you've ever noticed, Lanegan is rarely photographed head on or close up with his eyes open, nor is he too keen on giving away his secrets in conversation. While this stunning record approaches his mysterious essence--an impenetrable sadness studded with beauty and sensation--it will leave you contemplating your own.