“Neither Kurt (Cobain) nor Layne (Staley) believed I would ever get clean due to my maniacal hunger for drugs… They both imagined they would kick for good someday, but that my chances of ever getting clean were next to nil.”
This clanging, pitch-black line lands around halfway through Sing Backwards And Weep, the recently published memoir of rock’s most unlikely survivor, Mark Lanegan. It’s a depiction of addiction and self-loathing so bleak that your fingernails come away its pages caked in dirt. In it Lanegan lays his track-marked past bare, cycling endlessly between his roles as powerless victim, talented screw up and toxic enabler from page to stinking page.
‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ should ideally be listened to as a companion piece to this memoir. While it can absolutely be appreciated on its own merits, there’s something about the record’s disjointedness, the way each new song inhabits a completely different sound and personality to that which preceded it, that mirrors the way the book jumps to a new time and place with each chapter, repeatedly forcing you to find your bearings. It’s a disorientating affair, like waking up each morning in a new town, in a strange house in the same clothes you had on the night before; but it very much suits the autobiographical state of mind the singer has submerged himself in.
Aside from the hard rock of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, which wouldn’t really fit the album’s contemplative vibe, Lanegan dabbles in nearly every genre he’s touched over his long and varied career. There are outlaw blues (‘Ketamine’, ‘Ballan Of A Dying Rover), skittish ‘The King Of Limbs’-style electronics (‘I Wouldn’t Want To Say’, ‘Internal Hourglass Reflection’) and sparse acoustic collaborations with Lamb of God’s Mark Morton (‘Apples On A Tree’ and ‘Hanging On (For DRC)’).
This patchwork approach makes a welcome change from the singer’s recent run of solid yet predictable solo releases, each one more consistent and workmanlike than the last. In comparison to the shiny ‘Gargoyle’ and ‘Somebody’s Knocking’, this record could be viewed as an absolute mess. But, then again, the younger self that he sings about is an absolute mess, a “staggering, wounded atlas” who would “stay awake for six nights in a row” while “haunted by monochrome nightmares”.
Lyrically this might well be the best thing Mark Lanegan has ever written. While his favourite themes remain intact (blood, graveyards, using ‘Judas’ as a verb), this time they are used to add colour to very real and vividly painted memories. Lanegan, soaked to the skin and chasing his next hit through freezing European alleys, Lanegan, buzzed out of his skull and bumbling around Seattle streets, Lanegan, alone, curled up in crack dens awaiting the death that has already visited so many of his friends.
Despite the darkness it chronicles, ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ is a strangely uplifting listen. There’s an unmistakeable joy in Lanegan’s voice, as though he has come out of the painful experience of reliving these years with a newfound appreciation for life, love and his ability to create music. After all, his very ability to look back on this time with some perspective, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, is not something Staley, Cobain, Cornell and so many more of his old friends are able to do.
“The times and ways we could have died, We had other lands to find, From cornerstone to cornerstone, Our comrades dropped like meat from bone,” he sings on ‘Hanging On (For DRC)’, a heartfelt tribute to fellow Seattle survivor, Earth’s Dylan Carson.
Loss, regret and shame are wound up in this album’s DNA, but they are balanced out by a generous dose of hope, a solemn promise that someone can go through the darkest of times and come out stronger, steadier and more complete than ever before.
Words: Josh Gray
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