A mighty voice of formidably expressive multitudes, here given room to roar.
Kevin Harley 2012-02-01
Like a fleeing convict whose survival demands constant movement, Mark Lanegan has lent his life-scarred blues-rock growl to various causes in recent years. But none of his hired-gun gigs – Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli, Soulsavers – holds a candle to his first solo album since 2004’s Bubblegum. Blues Funeral deepens his pitch while exhibiting a range and grace beyond his death’s-head profile: you wouldn’t mistake it for anyone else, but its intoxicating potency and surprise swerves elude concerns that his outlaw front might calcify in cliché.
The Gravedigger’s Song packs pile-driving proof that he’s more than anyone’s side-man. Wise to the shadow his walking-dead reputation casts before him, Lanegan sings of "piranha teeth" bared, invoking images of a vampire (or ex-junkie) driven by dark appetites. His muscular band size up to his voice with the required fearlessness; Dulli and Queens of the Stone Age’s Alain Johannes and Josh Homme number among the powerhouse posse thickening the album’s air.
The subsequent heart-stopping plummet into Bleeding Muddy Water’s soul-sick dirge typifies the high-drama rollercoaster sequencing here: vertiginous highs, queasy comedowns. Detours to the book of hard-living clichés ("these tears are liquor") occur but Lanegan also conjures stop-you-dead images of an evocative, lived-in power ("a mountain of dust that burns in your mouth"). Phantasmagoria Blues and St Louis Elegy haunt familiar turf – wracked confessional and high-plains howler respectively – but he sells them with the conviction and character he invested in his magisterial 1999 covers set, I’ll Take Care of You.
And the double-takers? On Ode to Sad Disco, Lanegan essays gliding electro-pop, a jaw-dropping move executed with jaw-dropping assurance; on Harborview Hospital, his vocal verges on rueful ("All around this place / I was a sad disgrace"), a rarity for a man not renowned for looking back. Both take his voice’s weathered grace to fresh heights, as does the lysergic, synth-laced psychedelia of the closing Tiny Grain of Truth, where Lanegan casts himself as a "firewalker… neon priest… junky doctor… shadow king", drifting into the "city at night". Whichever Lanegan you prefer, his is a mighty voice of formidably expressive multitudes, here given room to roam, and to roar.