Mark Lanegan didn’t set out to write a new album, but after finishing writing his memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep (Out now from Hatchette Books), the waves of catharsis were so strong, he returned to the studio to create what’s possibly his finest work to date.
To call Sing Backwards... a cautionary tale would be meiotic to an almost laughable degree. It’s a life’s hard journey written with coal-black humor and a spray of arterial blood. Straight Songs of Sorrow is no different in its honesty, laid bare and raw for all to hear.
Opener “I Wouldn’t Want To Say” is the signpost warning of danger ahead, literally telling us to “get out while you can. I will bring bad luck and misery to you, man”. And let me tell you, Lanegan is not fucking around. But, ever the contrarian, the song is immediately followed up with a soft love song in the form of “Apples From A Tree”, but which in true Lanegan form still manages to convey what a fuckup he feels that he is.
The true beauty of Sorrow is the continuous commutation between light and dark that at times seem as opposing, battling forces as in the epically jarring “At Zero Below” featuring fellow Gutter Twin Greg Dulli and Bad Seed Warren Ellis. Then at others, a gentle, floating synergy as in “Stockholm City Blues”, an album highlight so existent you can feel the cold, the damp and the despair.
“Hanging on (for DRC)” is another prime example of this juxtaposition. A grateful ode to Dylan Carlson, who as evidenced in Sing Backwards... has been about the only constant in Lanegan’s life. His man Friday and often literal partner-in-crime.
There’s few vocalists that sound like Mark Lanegan. Thankfully, despite whatever hard lessons he’s had to endure throughout his career, it hasn’t stopped him from being one of the more prolific artists of his time. His rough baritone was used to a somewhat lesser effect on last year’s Somebody’s Knocking, but that’s because he has that rare, beautifully corroded voice that’s best enhanced with only the ether that surrounds it. The sparser the arrangement, the better the result - much like Johnny Cash proved on the American Recordings.
If Straight Songs of Sorrow sounds like a downer of a listen, it isn’t. Much like his book, it’s an honest, personal deep-dive into the psyche of an artist scrabbling through a hard-fought life. But he’s winning. And amidst the stark, confessional tone there’s a life-affirming vibe that permeates throughout. But in the caustic spirit of Straight Songs of Sorrow, call it a festering hope.
9.0 / 10
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