Mark Lanegan Band: Bubblegum (2004)

Click to visit his homepage.This is an older review of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word. Again, it’s a long ‘un. A decade ago I obviously wasn’t into precision. 

Until now, most people who’ve been aware of Mark Lanegan’s solo career have been die-hard fans. His solo work – a brace of pared-back albums that provide distinctly uneasy listening – is more noted for its barely-restrained menace, rather than the volume-heavy terror of the singer’s turns with Screaming Trees or Queens Of The Stone Age. His work over albums like Field Songs and The Winding Sheet contained a starker, and a more rootsy side that bands like 16 Horsepower and Calexico have been mining successfully for some time – though Lanegan’s vocals bring a more streetwise, thug-savvy survivalist aspect to the proceedings that David Eugene Edwards or Joey Burns would probably kill for.

The hidden nature – in this country, at least – of Lanegan’s solo career will, rightly, fall away with the release of Bubblegum. With the album, the singer has brought in some big guns to add colour to the recording session, and filled out his sound in the process. Across the length of the disc, his former bandmates Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri add some heavy-rock flourishes where necessary, ably assisted by Duff McKaganand Izzy Stradlin from Velvet Revolver, former Afghan Whigs honcho Greg Dulli, and returning-the-favour songstress PJ Harvey. The singer says that all the players are people who he considers friends, and it shows in the recording: while the subject-matter’s often uncomfortable, musically it’s in almost perfect empathy with his cracked pipes. It’s very much a collective effort, with Lanegan as the focus; hence, perhaps, his choice to release it under the moniker of the Mark Lanegan Band.

The until-the-album-comes EP, Here Comes That Weird Chill, gave listeners a clue as to where Lanegan was heading with his new revolving-door ensemble. The only song that appears both on that EP and on the album proper, Methamphetamine Blues, is much further away from the low-light acoustic shades of his other album work. Rather, it’s a raucous, ringing-ears industrial-percussion call to arms that starts with the singer laughing. What the hell? There were changes afoot – and the album would bring many more of them.

Bubblegum, the work proper, starts in an almost elegiac manner, with Lanegan’s former wife, Wendy Rae Fowler – the two are now divorced – playing a melancholic, almost classical piano line, reminiscent of a music box. It suggests that it’s going to be a wistful album – but that’s swiftly displaced by the thump of bass, a machinelike beat and feedbacking guitar that suggests a little more tech-embracing touches than fans have heard before.

Then, of course, there’s That Voice. The superlatives applied to Lanegan’s pipes are all pretty true: like an updated, more streetwise Tom Waits, his voice doesn’t just have nuance – it’s got a texture to it, a mixture of sandpaper and smoothness that the singer’s able to corral for the good of the tune. Yeah, it’s the sound of cigarettes and days spent awake, but when it’s pushed, it can be one of the most beautiful things you’ve heard – on album closer Out Of Nowhere, say. Hit The City, too – where the long-suffering rasp is paired with Polly Harvey’s soaring, crystal notes – highlights the amazing asset that’s at the heart of this disc.

The album’s split pretty evenly between loud and quiet. The quieter moments on disc, most indicative of the rest of his solo selection, are suffused with a slightly woozy glow. One Hundred Days, its lyrics full of waiting, of hope and desire, is repetitive strums and a Blue Velvet sort of feel. Strange Religion seems to be channelling renowned slowcore band Spain, even. Closer Out Of Nowhere hears Lanegan singing with much more clarity than anywhere else on the album, making it a tune that you can almost imagine Jeff Buckleysinging, if only he could’ve mustered the strength necessary to carry it off.

But when there’s the need for volume, it’s brought with amazing dexterity. The finest example is Methamphetamine Blues, the most obviously rocking tune on the album. Pistoning percussion, and a guitar riff so seedy that it sounds like it’s been wearing the same pair of leather pants for three weeks circle around Lanegan’s voice as it tells of his good-time daddy character’s resolution:

Keep your eyes wide open and my shotgun loaded
Cause I don’t want to leave this heaven so soon

Elsewhere, Sideways In Reverse seems a little more Queens, more balls-to-the-wall, a feeling better echoed in Driving Death Valley Blues, with its thunderous feel conjuring visions of tyres on tarmac, of speedy escape and thwarted ambition, of ruination hidden by sucking it up and continuing the journey:

Shame there’s nothing to hang it on
Except for this wreck that you made of me

 

Tunes like Head throw a little more arse-shaking groove into the mix, with proto-funk squelchings sitting next to cockatoo-squawk guitar bends and Rhodes organ tones that seem to have been ripped straight from a Led Zeppelin recording. It’s a mixed bag, musically, but it all hangs together surprisingly well.

Topically, the album speaks of big subjects – faith, travel, redemption, selfishness, addiction and love, amongst others. But there’s a distinct lack of pedagogy in Lanegan’s music; he’s not lecturing anyone in this collection of songs. It seems, rather, that he’s just flipping open his notebook for anyone to look through, in a particularly unselfconscious way. The newly-clean singer – he’s been sober for over six months, as of the time of writing – is steeped in drug tradition. It’s the singer’s life. This is, at heart, an album about drugs, it’s true, but not in the way that many reviews would have you believe. Drugs are the catalyst for the songs, not their sole focus, their reason to be. Tunes like Bombed or One Hundred Days have a sense of narcosis about them, but it’s about the experience, about the removal from life, not about glorification.

Of course, it’s not all smack and singing. Can’t Come Down, with its biblical overtones and mantra-like lyrics, speaks of self-induced separation. Diving Death Valley Blues – its references to cold turkey making it a prime drug-tale candidate too – is a great description of denial and forging ahead. When Your Number Isn’t Upspeaks of the nearness of death – whether it’s from overdose, or suicide attempt is unclear – and suggests that the other side’s so close to its protagonist that it could be hit with a rock. Metaphorical? Maybe… but its strength is palpable.

Though Lanegan would undoubtedly hate the term being applied to his work, Bubblegum is, in large portion, a blues record. But that should be taken in the spirit that it’s intended: rather than being part of the corporation-bitch blues that spawns House Of Blues chains and sees BB King and Eric Clapton’s later output, fretboard wankery and saccharine my-baby bullshit, this album sits more closely aligned to the original, devil’s music, desolation and loss world – so down-home and fucked that it’s almost country. His is not the world where Jon Spencer patronising masquerades as soul; rather, it’s of a world where the musician actually suffers for their songs. Wedding Dress, for example – a tale which tells of either jail, rehab or death, and of the embracing of lovers’ time together before the bitter end – is reminiscent, in parts, of Johnny Cash’s Long Black Veil, while containing something of a Blind Lemon Jefferson fatalism. It’s not twelve-bar noodling, but rather the conveying of a soul in torment, trying to come to terms with the traps and failings of humanity that aligns this disc to the ethos of blues. And there are few artists who could pull that off without sounding twee, or full of themselves. Lanegan is neither – he’s more like a tattooed Leadbelly than anything else.

Bubblegum is an album that you could call epic, except for the fact that the guy behind it would probably dismiss that as a bunch of bullshit. There’s a sense of fucked grandeur here that is immensely compelling, but doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly self-absorbed. If anything, this collection of sketches of suffering (although bliss and just-getting-by make an appearance, too) is low-key enough to increase the listener’s appreciation of the subject matter without playing the chest-thumping artist card. Sometimes, silence says a lot more. This guy’s seen more shit, been busted more times, and lived more miles than almost anyone still upright – but it’s not played like some kind of superhero card. Rather, Lanegan’s strength here seems to be in leaving it lie; we know his history, and that knowledge informs how Bubblegum is taken. Why belabour the point, after all?

What gives this disc appeal is that it is a very human album. It’s unafraid to embrace weakness, failure, selfishness and terror. Mark Lanegan would, indeed, be able to tear you a new arsehole, physically. But he’s also got the balls to show the chiaroscuro of a bloke dealing with grand passions and life-eating concepts. There’s a sense of grappling, of kicking and screaming with issues that stands at odds with the singer’s reputation as a hard-living, bullet-proof road-warrior. But it’s precisely that rounding, that sense of open-book admission, that makes him a stronger artist than most.

First published on FL in October 2004.

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