It’s rare that I do posts of a personal nature these days. Partly because I’ve become a little bit more guarded over the past couple of years anyway due to this & that, but I suppose it’s mostly because I’ve been so busy trying to listen to so much new stuff that I’ve not been looking backwards so often anymore. Which is probably why it came as a genuine shock to me when I read a message from a friend of mine today stating that this record is ten years old today. Conversations that have sprung from this revelation have seemed to have the same effect on several other of my friends today, and then the floodgates opened – a whole decade of memories, communities and even enmities all springing from the collective coming-together over one record. Happy Birthday, Bubblegum.
Shorn of the trappings that we’ve all added to it over the years, Bubblegum is a singularly remarkable record. After several albums that saw Mark Lanegan raising the melancholic acoustic bar for himself and everyone else in his wake, Bubblegum saw a dramatic change in tack that saw him embracing whatever shadows he’d gathered for himself over the years, and with his new Band in tow he curates, orders and celebrates each one in turn. The “none more” black of its cover coupled with the sugary delight of its title provides a confusing image before a note is played, although as soon as When Your Number Isn’t Up gives up its musicbox piano for something altogether more funereal it becomes apparent that it’s all about the former rather than the latter; a song of such compelling bleakness that pretty much marks this stage of his musical career as something quite different and dangerous.
Bubblegum is a blues record like no other. It complies with most of the rules involved but the execution of each song bends such previously definite and rigid structures way past any expected breaking points, and it’s not unfair to say that this is probably the busiest record that Lanegan has thus far been involved in. Fifteen songs where it’s hard to find any superficial musical commonality (lyrically, there’s plenty of self-destructive touchstones to be found in comparison) makes for a bit of a headrush when taken from start to finish and it still has this knack of feeling a lot longer to play through than it actually does. Indeed, it came as something of a surprise to discover that the leaner Blues Funeral follow-up is actually six minutes shorter! This is something that shouldn’t really hold together as well as it does as an album, but revisiting it now really does showcase the strength of will involved in making it all fit together perfectly.
It’s hard to find a song on here that hasn’t become a fast favourite of mine: the apocalyptic vows found in Wedding Dress, the breathy lust of Come To Me, even the fan-dividing unfettered joy of Sideways In Reverse are all lodged in my subconscious not as individual things, but as a dystopian whole that revels in its own chaotic track listing. Where it gets truly emotional is when Mark digs deep and pulls out two songs that remain among the best he’s written and performed of his own substantial pantheon. Strange Religion is a touching paean to an end of an abusive relationship that is performed with such grace and empathy that it feels like a warm ray of sunshine breaking through dark clouds. One Hundred Days is a song that started off already beautiful and the intervening decade has only seen it grow and flower into something with its own life; there simply is nothing else like it for emotional impact, calming influence, or sheer catharsis depending on what is required of it at any given time…
Coming back to it as a whole after a while brings its own unexpected delights, as I’m so used to dipping in and out of individual tracks that forgetting which song follows which makes for a strange listening experience; every song so familiar yet appearing almost as a surprise. It’s also – even during its more boisterous moments – an incredibly relaxing record, making it somewhat fitting that it’s a Sunday afternoon when I am once again soaking it all in. Reading through the extensive list of contributing players it feels unfair to select a few out of so many, but for me Chris Goss’ harmonies during One Hundred Days are a breathtaking highlight, and the ridiculous fanboy in me still gets giddy at the notion that my two favourite bands from my youth (Screaming Trees and the Doughboys) pass through each other’s orbit briefly with Doughboys’ mainman John Kastner playing on Sideways In Reverse – it’s the little nerdy moments that make it all so much fun and why I still listen.
All the above is enough to hold Bubblegum to heart. But that’s only part of the story for me, and hopefully to some of my friends in reading this. It also marks the start of a gathering of people who I am still thrilled and warmed to say are among the best people I know. The ten years from this record’s release until now has seen friendships rise and fall, borne witness to at least one marriage, more than a couple of births and sadly a few deaths along the way. And although we’re all scattered all over the place, it’s still a joy to walk into any concert hall in the country (and beyond) to see this guy play and know that there’ll be at least a few others of us in there to share good times with before going our separate ways again. I’ve probably never been happier that ten years have passed since then, and most of us (and more of us!) are still here, and have grown up together however far away “together” happens to be.