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Mark Lanegan
Straight Songs Of Sorrow Julian Marszalek , May 19th, 2020 07:46

Hot on the heels of his autobiography, Mark Lanegan's new album lacks the interest of its author's own narrative, finds Julian Marszalek

Such has been Mark Lanegan’s phenomenal work rate over the last ten years that it’s become remarkable when he’s actually not releasing new material or finding time to work with someone new. This is no bad thing; occupying a rarefied space within his generation, Lanegan is an artist whose broad musical tastes and curiosity has seen an evolutionary arc that has proved as satisfying as it has plentiful. And somewhere in that hectic schedule, he’s found the time to write his memoir, Sing Backwards And Weep.

A brutally honest, harrowing yet utterly compulsive read, it also serves as the inspiration behind Lanegan’s latest collection of songs. While death and mortality have always played an integral part in his work, never have they been as autobiographical as they are here. Indeed, the title tells you pretty much what to expect.

As ever with Lanegan, there’s a roll call of notable collaborators and those making an appearance this time include former Gutter Twins partner Greg Dulli, The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones among others. Electronics and acoustic instrumentation mesh throughout, a natural progression of the journey that Lanegan’s undertaken over the course of the last decade.

Alas, Straight Songs Of Sorrow is an erratic and inconsistent album that struggles to maintain interest over the course of fifteen songs spread over sixty minutes. So while the opening trio of songs – ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Say’, ‘Apples From A Tree’ and ‘This Game Of Love’ (the latter a gorgeous duet with his wife, Shelley Brien) – are as strong an opening as one could hope for, the album then falters.

Whereas this opening triptych finds Lanegan exploring unfulfilled love, death and longing and binding them with a strong sense of melody and sense of musical adventure, what follows relies more on setting and drama than solid songwriting. ‘Internal Hour Glass’ is shapeless and more reliant on production rather than songcraft, while the likes of ‘Ballad Of A Dying Rover’ and ‘Churchbells, Ghosts’ are too slight to gain any lasting affection.

Not that all is lost. ‘Stockholm City Blues’ is where Lanegan’s skill as a wordsmith and tunesmith coalesce to coax sympathy as an addict awaits the next fix. The music is sparse yet effective as it elicits sympathy for the hopeless protagonist.

Despite its best intentions, Straight Songs Of Sorrow is an album that would’ve worked considerably better as a well-pruned EP. As it stands, there’s too much intent and not enough delivery to maintain attention throughout its sprawling running time.

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