It’s tempting to think of Mark Lanegan as a recluse. It’s been eight years since Bubblegum, the Mark Lanegan Band’s last album. But those eight years have actually been a prolific period for him. He’s recorded collaborative albums with Greg Dulli and with Isobel Campbell, and had a steady stream of guest appearances with other acts. But the Mark Lanegan Band is the closest thing he has to a solo act, these days, and the songs on Blues Funeral, their new album, are unmistakably his own creations. Count me among the people who’ve been looking forward to this.
After a few listens, I might even be getting a better idea of why his music stakes out so much territory in my imagination, when I hear it. The album feels ‘bluesy’ enough – his voice is still a treasure for its effortless growl, and for his classic ‘blues crooner’ delivery. But ‘blues’ seems like a lazy categorization. His solo career has traced a path all his own through the terrain of American rock, and the new album picks up the thread right where Bubblegum left it off. There’s one ongoing movement deeper into the tones of his work — the brooding, the guttural, the dejected reverence — but at the same time, he keeps moving farther afield of the technical traditions of blues-rock. He’s continued to challenge himself do more with less, and to pull new instruments into the fabric of his sounds. “Deep Black Vanishing Train” would nearly sound at home on Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, while “Ode to Sad Disco” feels like two songs nested into each other, the pieces never entirely settling. And the end result, in total, sounds like something that could almost have been written anywhere in the past 50 years, or the 50 to come.
As a songwriter, Lanegan tends not to narrate. His songs can live entirely in the present tense, for moments as brief as the “I see the smoke / from a revolver. / will I get hit? / I hardly care”, from Bubblegum’s “Bombed”. Whole albums may have longer arcs, but there’s always the sense that you could re-shuffle the playlist and end up a story that was just as good. Finding the thread through the whole album, and digging into what came before it, means hearing a story that’s in no hurry to be told. It’s about a sound that can travel from the Mississippi Delta to the Olympic Peninsula, without ever showing the same face at any two stops along the way.
Listening, I get that feeling of flipping through someone else’s photos albums, with pictures all showing the same face through different times and places. The voice that speaks through Blues Funeral seems to call from each of the album’s moments almost simultaneously. A neat trick all by itself, but it also puts that longer story in context: it’s not the evolution of a character, or even of a voice. It’s the music itself that’s living the story, reaching out to draw us deeper into that voice.