Mark Lanegan Band
unny thing, bubblegum: chew it up, blow it up, spit it out—it’ll take everything you can throw at it, and then some. It’s difficult to avoid reading something into this choice of title for Mark Lanegan’s latest solo album (his 6th, but his first credited to the ‘Mark Lanegan Band’). Between his ostensible day jobs singing for The Screaming Trees and occasional vocals on QOTSA albums, Lanegan has pursued a parallel career wherein he’s proven himself to be one of the most talented extant rock vocalists. His voice is pure smoke; sometimes ephemeral, at others smoldering and cancerous, his explorations of the darker sides of folk and country have produced a number of thrillingly authentic and frequently startling albums. Yet, until now, Lanegan has been happy to rock all day and ruminate all night: Bubblegum is his first attempt to produce a fusion of his two worlds (after the also excellent EP Here Comes That Weird Chill). It is, to be frank, one of the most remarkable and forward-looking rock albums that you will hear all year, and testament to Lanegan’s ability to take desolate lyrics and fashion beautiful, redemptive tunes around them. This is the album that Lanegan always seemed about to make; forgive him his tardiness, and dive right in.
First up we have “When Your Number Is Up”, a truly chilling song. It begins with the kind of naïve piano melody that lulls the listener into the false sense of expectation that we’re going to get a traditional Mark torch song—then a desolate drumbeat worthy of Iggy Pop circa “Nightclubbing” lurches into view, and it’s plain that Lanegan’s using a whole new palette. On this track Lanegan’s voice is absolutely sublime: it’s rare for me to remark on phrasing and accentuation in a rock track, but he approaches the studied perception of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. The arrangement is superb, too; strangled guitar, low organ tones and the aforementioned drums plodding behind Mark as he confidently works his way through a tale of death and disgust. “Did they call for the night porter? / And smell the blood, blood running warm? / Well I've been waiting at this frozen border / So close you could hit it with a stone”. It’s the kind of so-honest-it-hurts song that I could listen to forever, and establishes an extremely high watermark for the album—which is quickly reciprocated by the next track “Hit The City”. A duet—of sorts—between Lanegan and PJ Harvey, it’s a driving, fuzzy track that offers the first glance of the new musical direction that Mark is pursuing; obviously, this time, he didn’t leave all of the effects pedals over at Josh Homme’s house the last time he was over. Bizarrely, it has Nick Oliveri playing drums. And it rocks. Hugely. Go figure.
These first two tracks establish the pattern for the rest of the album; a beautifully stripped-down ballad here, a scathing stoner-rock epic there. It sounds like the album that Lanegan shoulda, coulda, woulda made after the Screaming Trees split, if only all the players had been around at the time. Here, his jigsaw box is full of other peoples’ pieces: Izzy and Duff from Guns n’Roses; Greg Dulli, the aforementioned PJ, Homme and Oliveri. Yet there’s no forcing together of pictures; it’s a real band, even though the list of players makes it sound like a collective. It’s Mark’s band, and he’s never sounded more in control. Like he says on “Methamphetamine Blues” (a roughly coruscating song with a main riff that you could swear was powerful enough to rip the hair cells from your inner ear): “I’m rolling just to keep on rolling”. “You just keep going…” was Lanegan’s mantra for the 90s as his friends Kurt Cobain and Jeffrey Pierce of The Gun Club didn’t make it out. Lanegan did, and this album is a powerful reminder that we should be thankful.
Reviewed by: Dave McGonigle
Reviewed on: 2004-08-23