It’s amazing how the music industry moves on nowadays; careers tend to be a bit more slow-burning than meteoric in these less-stellar times . Blues Funeral marks the solo return of an artist whose last singularly-released album was in 2004. Eight years ago. To put this into some light-hearted perspective:
- The Beatles played their last Hamburg shows as willing R’n'R apprentices in December 1962; in December 1970 Paul McCartney files a suit to dissolve the band’s contractual obligations and begins the official end of one of the most successful and culture-altering bands ever.
- In 1968, the New Yardbirds play their first shows under their new name Led Zeppelin; in 1976… erm, not much happened as Robert Plant had injured himself the previous year. Well, there was The Song Remains the Same, but other than Peter Grant going off his head in a high-pitched voice, it was a bit iffy. Still, the 7 years previous featured six of the best rock albums ever released. And Presence.
- Blimey, even if you’d dropped a mirror your luck would have changed back last Christmas.
Of course this “fallow period” wasn’t so much a gap in proceedings as a creative workaholic’s paradise – three full albums recording and touring alongside Isobel Campbell, two wonderfully cinematic, eccentric and redemptive albums as frontman with the Soulsavers and a long-awaited collaboration with Greg Dulli as one half of the Gutter Twins count as some of the finest records released in this period. Throw in a huge amount of pitchings-in with an eclectic array of artists both familiar to many (Twilight Singers, Queens of the Stone Age, The Breeders, UNKLE, Bomb The Bass) and not-quite-so (My Jerusalem, Manna, The Separate amongst others) plus an acoustic solo tour or two to blow the cobwebs of the old stuff again, and you have a huge spectrum of influences and new pathways to walk and skills to pick up to be absorbed and bent around Mark Lanegan’s unique musical will. The gap also represents an apparent reassertion of personal control: for all Bubblegum’s strength of songwriting and performance, it was all a bit “Heroin: The Musical” and somewhat disjointed (albeit wonderfully) for its collection of musings on the darker corners of a man’s soul.
The sudden intro to Gravedigger’s Song kicks in, almost as if Out Of Nowhere had finished five minutes ago instead of the thick end of a decade. Yet despite the urgency of the beat that drives the song forward, the first impression of Blues Funeral is one of utter control. He may still have his demons somewhere within, but he now knows exactly what they are and – more importantly – lets them know that he knows exactly where they live. This control is married to a confidence throughout the album that takes the listener into places that may seem superficially similar to those he’s taken us before, but this time it’s as guide and curator rather than exhibit. This allows for a tighter grip on his ideas and a looser rein on the way he projects himself: Gray Goes Black is a particular early highlight of this, the guitars reminiscent of Chris Isaak as part of an imagined Angelo Badalamenti score wind seductively around a soft yet pin-sharp vocal that takes its ending cues from recent b-side (and Japanese bonus track) Burning Jacob’s Ladder.
Of course it’s impossible to talk about anything Mark Lanegan is involved in without mentioning his voice. It certainly has to be said that giving up the ciggies has worked miracles on his vocal chords – the rumble’s still there but the edges are softer and the range doesn’t feel like quite so much work at the lower and higher ends as it did on Bubblegum. This also means that he can channel this apparent ease of delivery into imposing himself on his songs more than ever.
I mentioned Sergio Leone in my review of the Gravedigger’s Song 7″, and with good reason. Leone had a trick up his sleeve with regard to sound design in his films (much-copied since), which was to overemphasise the sound of gunshot – pistols were overdubbed with shotguns, shotguns overdubbed with rifles, and cannons like (to quote film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, although he may have been exaggerating) nuclear blasts. Also, every ricochet made a noise; even those that bounced off the sand. This approach hasn’t been lost on a certain Leone fan and subject of this review who once appeared on his own messageboard and paraphrased a line from The Outlaw Josey Wales that has since passed into legend: and it’s testament to producer and co-conspirator Alain Johannes that the music that backs each song follows this simple yet effective rule where everything is that little bit punchier and forthright than normal, but having everything doing this all at once makes the end result feel absolutely natural and can only leave anyone listening salivating at the thought of what’s going to happen to this set on stage. The Leone connection is stretched that little bit further to allow room for St Louis Elegy, a quiet epic that takes in the huge panoramas and inches-away closeups that Ennio Morricone soundtracked so well and brings it all bang up to date.
Much has been made of a more electronic direction with Blues Funeral, and this is certainly the case with a couple of songs. Ode To Sad Disco will come as a huge surprise to fans both old and recent, its driving electronica coming from a few decades ago when synthesizers resembled antique telephone exchanges and the zeitgeist was of pushing the boundaries of independent music. If ever there was proof required of someone taking himself right out of his comfort zone and presenting a whole new facet of his work and influences, this is the most startling evidence of it that I have ever heard. And he’s so comfortable with it – the drum patterns and long, floating synth chords are so evocative of when New Order found their feet, with Mark’s gentle melody patterns over the top of that reminiscent of a mid-swagger Ian McCulloch, with Tiny Grain Of Truth sublimely closing the album in a laid-back manner of Mac’s own electronic Electrafixion project. The electronics remain switched on in a more restrained but no less essential manner on the following track. There’s no two ways about it, Phantasmagoria Blues is a staggering breakup song and such a disarmingly emotional song that it’s physically draining to experience; the deceptive gentleness of delivery pulls you in to pay more attention, and it’s very difficult to pull oneself away from.
These two successful experiments are neatly bookended by a brace of tracks that exemplify why the “Band” suffix was added to Mark Lanegan’s name. Both Riot In My House and Quiver Syndrome rock out with a swagger of such ease that his friends and co-workers from other bands must both enjoy performing and also wish that they could do this so readily. The latter is especially well-placed, having the most fun song appear after the saddest is a good move and exemplifies the skill of emotionally ordering the running of an album, an artform becoming sadly lost in an increasingly shuffling industry.
Lyrically, the old imagery is still there in force for the most part. Tales of hardship and loss married to visions of a grand apocalypse still figure strongly from a man adept at telling his story but burying the more personal details under a flurry of beautifully structured Blood and Thunder pulpitry; because much as he loves to sing, and as much as he writes about what he knows, the general rule of thumb is that very little of what he knows has anything to do with the rest of us. But there are moments where these walls, meticulously created over many years, are thinner in places than before. Harborview Hospital especially switches often between allegory and stark reality to discomforting effect, the mood lightened by more synthesized backing and the vaguest background hints of old Peter Hook basslines providing a celestial rather than infernal outlook.
This really is one of those albums that comes around so rarely as to be almost completely unique. Mark Lanegan has skirted around fame in the shadows of his friends and colleagues (and, it has to be said, also his own), Blues Funeral should be the record that not only puts him up in the pantheon occupied by his peers, but way above that. Certainly the most focused album of his long career, it’s a completely logical step from his previous work (indeed, echoes of both Hit The City b-sides can be heard here in the nods to Mud Pink Skag in Quiver Syndrome‘s robotic beat and Deep Black Vanishing Train‘s beautiful mellotron expansion of Mirrored) and a huge leap in front of anything else that has been released in a very long time. It’s telling that the experiments in sound all feel absolutely at home as part of Lanegan’s canon, there is nothing here that could alienate any of his existing fanbase, only draw them in closer as new listeners are drawn in from all corners depending on which song here grabs them first. Blues Funeral is, despite the title, a joyous album that deserves to be heard by everyone. Utterly, unequivocally essential. Anyone who reads the above stream-of-consciousness drivel that I’ve just parked on the screen while I listen to the album from start to finish for the first time only needs to read that one preceding sentence.