Anguished but ultimately life-affirming...
Before we begin, there’s something you should know about American roots renaissance man Mark Lanegan. Former frontman with misunderstood grunge tearjerkers [a]Screaming Trees[/a], sometime [a]Queens Of The Stone Age[/a] vocalist and rootin’ tootin’ grizzled rock troubadour with a string of acclaimed confessional solo works to his name, Lanegan possesses the finest rock voice of his generation. A ragged Marlboro-stained, whiskey-ravaged baritone bark it might be, but it’s the way Lanegan manages to ebb melancholy-soaked anguish from every crevice of the English language and make every slurred syllable sound like a sordid after-hours request that confirms this lofty status. Lanegan has a voice that could terrify children and console you in your darkest hour. A voice that could strip paint and charm the birds out of the sky. That’s diversity; that’s a voice.
So ‘Bubblegum’, his first tentative foray into the limelight since it all got so horribly confused for Queens earlier this year, is a record filled with such emotional scope and range that it’s tailor-made to showcase Lanegan’s world weary roar. And not only does it showcase the finest collection of songs Lanegan has written in his long and winding career, but the man’s called in a few favours too. [a]Queens Of The Stone Age[/a] bandmates Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri turn up all over the place, [a]PJ Harvey[/a] lends stupendously stroppy vocals to ‘Hit The City’ and ‘Come To Me’, while former [a]Guns n’ Roses[/a] buffoons Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan manage to redeem at least some of their cock rock crimes by providing introspective warmth to ‘Strange Religion’. Unquestionably though, this is a[a]Mark Lanegan[/a] record, swathed with sad, sad songs and seemingly entombed in a claustrophobic catacomb of failed romance and unapologetic drug-addled despair. This is a record where Lanegan confronts demons and slays them with his throaty rasp. And somehow, among all this, he triumphantly makes an extraordinarily beautiful record.
Because ‘Bubblegum’ is both as brave and vulnerable as a wounded lion. ‘When Your Number Isn’t Up’ opens proceedings and sounds like the song [a]Johnny Cash[/a] would love to have written to close his noble stay on planet Earth, while ‘Hit The City’ is Lanegan and Harvey getting suited and booted before wreaking life-affirming havoc at the local spit and sawdust boozer. Then there’s ‘One Hundred Days’, a confessional open wound, and a contender for the best song Lanegan has ever written. Under a minute and a half long, ‘Bombed’ is a snippet of raw unhampered beauty, a rose petal-scented duet between co-vocalist Wendy Rae Fowler and Lanegan’s unkempt half-awake croon, while ‘Methamphetamine Blues’ is the song that’s been playing in Keith Richards’ head for nearly 40 years. Harvey returns for ‘Come To Me’, part sadistic lullaby, part liquor-stained irrational love song, tarnished with salty tears and lashings of sugary blood, it’s the sexiest love song post-‘Let’s Get it On’, while ‘Wedding Dress’ is the creepiest (murder) ballad since Nick Cave put away his collection of knives.
These are songs that walk the road signposted ‘Oblivion’ but Lanegan, a true American survivor, just sparks up a cigarette and cracks a wry, knowing smile at the ridiculousness of it all. He’s a man who can confront the existential horrors of existence, the soul-tormenting despair of love and loss, and treat them all as necessary ports to be visited on the voyage of life. Lanegan manages to make all of the aforementioned sound like an adventure that, against all odds, is joyous, precious and holy. He sounds unbeatable, immortal, indestructible.
There’s something else you should know. Mark Lanegan is a wrinkled, leathery-skinned, uncompromising punk firebrand. A major label MD’s nightmare and a stylist’s lost cause. He is the antithesis of the Pop Idol conveyor belt of disposable dross that threatens to eclipse the great rock individual. He is the truth and the light, a diamond in the rough and everything that makes this rock’n’roll lark so all-encompassing.