It is perhaps no surprise that Mark Lanegan’s Straight Songs Of Sorrow (8 May 2020; Heavenly Recordings) features a whole load of references to death and dying. After all, the man with the voice “as scratchy as a three-day beard yet as pliable as moccasin leather” has seen heroin addiction, jail time and the loss of many people he cared about. The result is an intense hour of listening but make no mistake, the time spent provides rich rewards; this is without doubt one of Lanegan’s best albums.
Specifically, some of the many close friends and colleagues the former Screaming Trees frontman and Queens of the Stone Age collaborator has lost include Layne Staley (Alice in Chains and Mad Season), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden). For this reason this critic would choose the track Skeleton Key as the emotional heart of this album, in part because it is a brilliant song that includes the line that forms the album’s title; and partly because in it the man who has cheated the Reaper many times sings the key words: “I spent my life, tryin' every way to die, Is it my fate to be the last one standin'?”
In fact Straight Songs of Sorrow is largely inspired by Lanegan’s traumatic memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, which recounts his youthful experiences of drug addiction, depravity and despair throughout the 1990s. In sum, as NME put it, “he has seen some shit!”
Lanegan has now released 12 solo albums and, like Tom Waits – to whom his voice and independent spirit is often compared – seems to be getting better with age. It is not just his lyrics that have matured but his music, which ranges from beautiful Guild D55 acoustic guitar finger-picking (from Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton on Apples From A Tree) to the dark electronic synth opener, I Wouldn’t Want To Say. The latter song is confessional and creates a perfect link with Lanegan’s autobiography that inspired both this lyric and the album.
The third song is This Game of Love, on which Lanegan duets with his wife, Shelley Brien. The lyrics deal with the universal themes of heaven and hell, and closeness and loneliness.
The middle section of the album, which contains Churchbells, Ghosts and Internal Hourglass Discussion sounds at first too reliant on the atmospherics but the lyrics remain strong and merit repeat listenings. Stockholm City Blues picks up the tempo a little, and in the process tells the tale of an addict searching for a fix. Portishead’s Adrian Utley, who favours Gretsch guitars, joins Lanegan on Daylight in the Nocturnal House, a track that contains a sublime choral section that gradually seeps into the song. The outstanding track, Ballad of the Dying Rover, featuring Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on Mellotron, on the other hand, offers a strong rhythm to again showcase Lanegan’s dark lyrical preoccupations: "My days are numbered, Eternal slumber, Death is my due,” he sings.
The chilling Zero Below features Bad Seed Warren Ellis’s banshee fiddle, which works perfectly with the song’s ominous theme. In contrast, album closer Eden Lost and Found helps end on an upbeat note as Lanegan emphasises his belief that “Sunrise’s coming up, baby.”
The album contains one more gem that seems appropriate to conclude on, and that is Hanging On (For DRC), which is a loving tribute to his friend Dylan Carlson of Earth, and contains the line:“By all rights, we should be gone, But you and me still hanging on.” Lanegan might sometimes be consumed by survivor’s guilt for having escaped death when so many others didn’t, but he also knows how to celebrate enduring friendship, music and life.