So after years spent in the no-man’s land of collaborations, co-signs and guest appearances, the baritone voiced bluesman Mark Lanegan has repatriated to his troubled existence as a solo performer. Since his days with cult heroes (or more accurately, grunge also-rans) Screaming Trees, Lanegan has carved a narrow niche for himself with the sometimes winning combination of that unfiltered baritone voice and a pretty heavily cemented lyrical persona.
Opening with ‘The Gravedigger’s Song’, the record sets no grand ambition to outpace any of Lanegan’s prior oeuvre. Melding ominous blues to the throbbing pulse of a techno track, it could easily be the sequel to ‘Methamphetamine Blues’ from his last record. Of course, anyone who heard the after-hours majesty of Bubblegum will tell you that’s a hefty compliment. When he does it right, Lanegan conjures up a brooding cinematic darkness that lingers over the listener like a dark cloud, as seen on the resonant, lumbering vocals of ‘St. Louis Elegy’ and the unnerving counterpoint of Lanegan’s sinister vocals with a Beach Boys worthy pop melody on the baroque and roll of ‘Leviathan’.
Yet when he fails to be so inspired, he does so to a mind-numbing extent. The no-brainer rock of ‘Riot in My House’ and ‘Quiver Syndrome’ will find defenders, but it is remarkably one dimensional for an artist who has shown such depth elsewhere. ‘Gray Goes Black’ undermines a cryptic, melancholic set of lyrics with a bland, insistent rhythm and a distinct lack of any consideration of dynamics. And then there’s ‘Ode to Sad Disco’, a wholly unwarranted dance-floor track with Depeche Mode synths and ‘Wicked Game’ guitar leads that juts out like an eyesore on the album’s landscape. It’s even more frustrating when one hears how with a gentler touch he can use electronics to explore new terrain on ‘Harborview Hospital’ or ‘Tiny Grain of Truth’, without being a fraction as gaudy.
His enduring fondness for Southern Gothic misery as a lyrical foundation provides some consistency, but does begin to feel a bit affected after 12 tracks. It makes the case for the existence of a blues-specific law of diminishing returns that states that there is a maximum capacity for references to drugs, booze and God on any record before it feels hackneyed. By the time one reaches the line “If tears were liquor / I’d have drunk myself sick” on ‘St. Louis Elegy’, it’s bluntly obvious that Lanegan is still content to pretend he’s a Cormac McCarthy character for the rest of his career. The problem isn’t that it’s a poor record, but a patchy one of too many troughs and too few peaks. For fans of Lanegan’s style though, they’ll be treated to more of the same for much of the record, by no means an unpleasant offer.