Mark Lanegan remains on a roll in terms of output, with ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ landing just seven months after ‘Somebody’s Knocking’. The timing is significant, as ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ presents 15 songs ‘inspired by a story: his life story, as documented by his own hand in his new memoir, ‘Sing Backwards And Weep’’. As such, it’s effectively a soundtrack album. And, given the unflinching and often harrowing nature of the book, ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ was never going to be particularly ebullient. It is, however, varied, both stylistically and in terms of mood.
While still heavily centred around keyboards and drum machines, the album’s tone is significantly different from that of its predecessor, and this is nowhere more apparent than on the six-minute opener ‘I Wouldn’t Want to Say’. Lanegan’s grizzled lovelorn croon is backed by a barrage of primitive electronic percussion and comes on like The Fall at their most Krautrock.
‘This Game of Love’ finds Mark in duet with his wife Shelley Brien. The effect is quite Cohenesque. The piano-led ‘Ketamine’ may be short but it’s dark and lugubrious, and is one of many songs that tackles Lanegan’s dealings with drugs.
‘Bleed All Over’ may be musically lighter with some flighty 80s synths and an easy, almost Cure-like melody, but lyrically, it’s pretty bleak, and find finds Lanegan alternately hiding in a basement and running away. ‘Internal Hourgalass Discussion’ mines an almost dubby dance seam, with a shuffling beat and dissonant trilling synth melded to a low, resinous bass as Lanegan casts his eye over a cityscape on a ‘beautiful day’, while the travelogue and notes of excess continue through the reflective acoustic ‘Stockholm City Blues’ which is as beautiful an ode to self-destructive tendencies you’re likely to hear. ‘Skeleton Key’ is a clear standout, a slow-burning reflection on life and death.
The arrangements tend to be understated, centred more around mood than melody, and as such place Lanegan’s voice at the centre. And as always, Lanegan’s voice is spine-tingling, that gritty timbre conveying an emotional depth and a life of experience beyond anything words alone could. So often here, he sounds haunted, and also vulnerable.
As the final notes of the organ-led, string-draped ‘Eden Lost and Found’, Lanagan leaves us with a bittersweet optimism – a literal new dawn, dragging his way toward the light.