Straight Songs of Sorrow
Mark Lanegan often gets compared to Leonard Cohen, for his music and his lifestyle. He rose to fame as the frontman of one of the most dysfunctional bands in rock’n’roll history, The Screaming Trees, originally formed in Ellensburg, WA. The Trees relocated to Seattle, and though they were never a grunge band, they caught the coattails of that movement and achieved some fame. And notoriety. Like the time they were on David Letterman in October 1992, the night after a bar-room brawl in New Jersey, Lanegan growling like a caged animal with a black eye and the Trees’ drummer, Barrett Martin, is MIA because he separated his shoulder in the brawl.
Seeing Paul Schaffer and his Orchestra getting to rock out for once is priceless, and Schaffer only looks remotely as punchable as he usually did. As an aside, I saw the Trees a whack of times, in Seattle and Vancouver, in Toronto and Montréal. They were my favourite of the Seattle bands. Anyway, one night, I can’t remember where, the two Brothers Connor (bassist Van and guitarist Gary Lee) got into a fight. They are huge men, well over 6 feet and 300 pounds (this was an aptly-named band, Martin and Lanegan are also large men), and as they started pushing each other, Lanegan jumped nearly halfway to the moon to avoid being taken out by a staggering Gary Lee, who caught his balance and then charged his brother. Eventually, they sorted themselves out and carried on, with a lot of yelling, swearing and threats of impending murder from all four band members to each other.
Anyway. I bring all this up because Straight Songs of Sorrow is the companion to Lanegan’s memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep. I read it last weekend. I always knew Lanegan lived it rough, and that brawl in New Jersey in 1992, hell, I’d seen it live. Like the needle marks on his arms. But Sing Backwards is a searing, painful, and well-written look back at the crazy Lanegan has lived and seen. The section on the suicide of his good friend, Kurt Cobain, is tear-inducing. When Lanegan sang:
I’ve been where you never been
I’ve seen what you’ve never seen
I’ve dreamed what you’ve never dreamed
I’ve left what you’d never leave.
On ‘Dime Western’ on the Trees’ criminally underrated final album, Dust, it turns out he meant it.
For a lot of people who write memoirs recounting pain and misery in their past, it is a cathartic and recuperative experience, and it allows them closure and leaves them ready to move on.
But not for Lanegan:
Writing the book, I didn’t get catharsis. All I got was a Pandora’s box full of pain and misery. I went way in, and remembered shit I’d put away 20 years ago. But I started writing these songs the minute I was done, and I realised there was a depth of emotion because they were all linked to memories from this book. It was a relief to suddenly go back to music. Then I realised that was the gift of the book: these songs. I’m really proud of this record.
And so, the album itself. This is his second album in seven months, following the brilliant Somebody’s Knocking. Opener ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Say’ sees Lanegan’s grizzled voice over a synthesizer and rollicking drum roll describing himself as a ‘self-incendiary device’ and how he frightened away those who tried to help him when he was down, ‘swinging from death to revival/where I’ve been and what I’ve done.’ This song ‘is the explanation, the beginning and middle and end of that entire period of time. The encapsulation of the entire experience, book and record. So I started with that.’
Each song on the album, and there are fifteen clocking in at 61 minutes, corresponds to an event or story he told in Sing Backwards. It’s a really interesting approach to an album, as it is kind of the illustration of the story of his life. The album touches on the gazillion genres he’s dabbled in across his long career, the Trees releasing their first album in 1984, and Lanegan putting out his first solo album in 1990. And ‘Plucking Apples from the Tree’ is an acoustic track, just him and a guitar and a synthesizer, as he sings about his childhood, his distant relationship with his mother and the hard times he experienced in Ellensburg.
‘This Game of Love’ is a duet with his wife, Shelly Brien, who also co-wrote the track. Lanegan has historically had a hard time in keeping his girlfriends, for a variety of reasons relating to social anxiety and drug addiction, all of which left him somewhat of an asshole, and because he wrote and sang it with Brien, the result is a deep, emotional track that has a gentle beauty as they sing over a simple synth and drum machine.
Ketamine might be the only substance Lanegan has not ingested in his body, but on the song of the same name, he recounts his time as a smack addict in Seattle in the 90s (hint: this was both a great and a horrible time to be junkie in the Pacific Northwest, as the heroin in Vancouver and Seattle was very pure, which, of course, led to an epidemic of overdoses).
‘Internal Hourglass Discussion,’ a song I am partial to is a Depeche Mode-like synthesizer and drum machine beat, gentle and flowing, as Lanegan cleans up his growl somewhat to recount a day spent wandering around Seattle ‘on this beautiful day.’
The emotional centre of the album comes with the tracks ‘Stockholm City Blues’ and ‘Skeleton Key.’ The former sounds like it could’ve been on his solo masterpiece Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994), as he recounts getting soaked in Stockholm out looking for to score:
No one can tell when me enough is enough
Descending every ladder to its final rung
I pay for this pain I’m running through my blood
Couldn’t even tell me when enough is enough
Trading a few more nickels for another nail
Don’t let my will give out before my body fails.
‘Skeleton Key’ is a 7-minute dirge, built upwards from a distorted fuzzy bass and Lanegan cuts no bones:
I’m so very ugly
I’m ugly inside and out
There’s no denying
Why would you ever love me?
No one has ever loved me yet, pretty baby.
I’ve spent my life
Trying every way to die
As if my fate woukd be to the last one standing
Don’t you know it’s a crime?
Lanegan has, of course, sang his share of self-loathing lyrics over his career, but this track seems to be the hardest hitting. The Seattle scene of the 90s was awash with heroin, and the list of addicts is pretty long, from Mark Arm (Mudhoney), Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone, who died of an overdose in 1990), Cobain, Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) and a whole host of other musicians. And Lanegan shot smack with most of them, including his good friend Staley. And thus, when he sings he is the last man standing, he means it. Yes, Arm is still with us and rocking out, as is his former roommate Dylan Carlson, who records drone metal as Earth (in fact, the track ‘Hanging On’ is dedicated to Carlson). But, of that hard core centre of addicts (Lanegan, Cobain, Staley), he is indeed the last one standing. It is a sobering thought.
Read Backwards ends with Staley’s overdose death in 2002. Lanegan got the news when he was coming out of rehab for the final time in California. And so does Straight Songs.
Songs of Straight Sorrow continues Lanegan’s Cohenisms via its title, and as the title suggests, this is a hard and heavy listen. Most of the songs are simply built up from a synthesizer, with a few sidetracks into acoustic guitar, both strummed and picked, but it is a mellow album musically. Lyrically, however, it is anything but. And yet, it is another genius album in Lanegan’s long career.