Mark Lanegan

Whiskey for the Holy Ghost


Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In “Montezuma,” from this year’s Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold sings of one of his generation’s common anxieties, that of adulthood having escaped him or having been delayed indefinitely. In many ways, still dependent upon mom and dad for financial security in the worst recession the country’s known, the narrator in Pecknold’s song worries about his capacity to ever be selfless enough to some day be a good father, just as in the record’s title track, he sings of the queasy feeling of realizing his dreams’ diminished returns and the hope for finding peace in what is, not in what he was taught from a young age could’ve been.

Pecknold, still the very best of the Aughts’ bearded, pastoral songwriters, has the same sort of lock on the indie zeitgeist shared by Patrick Stickles or Win Butler; yet, for me, it’s fascinating to compare his concerns with what the Pacific Northwest was producing just a generation prior. While Pecknold chastises himself next to his parents’ capacity for selfless love and recreates new dreams with lowered expectations, a similarly folk-inflected songwriter, for whom the pines of the Cascades meant not majesty but rather resembled ones found in Leadbelly songs, released a second solo effort in 1994 that spoke not of dreams deferred so much as hopes completely dashed.

Mark Lanegan, of Ellensburg, WA’s Screaming Trees, must never have been a particularly easy guy to be in a band with. Coming, reportedly, from a background involving hardscrabble odd jobs, a dysfunctional home life and teenage drug abuse, Lanegan was damaged goods pretty early on. Both his bandmates and collaborators intimated that his self-confidence was meek and his shyness legendary; combine this dysfunction with his sublime voice and talent for stark lyricism and you’re guaranteed an artist whose work, at its best, is indelible outsider songs.

Though, Lanegan’s tour-de-force Whiskey for the Holy Ghost almost wasn’t made; the singer was deep into an on-again-off-again heroin addiction at the time, promising nothing in the way of artistic product. At one point according to engineer Jack Endino, Lanegan was feeling low enough about the sessions that he had to be stopped from chucking the masters into a river. Childish, perhaps, but in listening to the record, you might understand that Lanegan was worried about getting it right.

Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, like much of Lanegan’s solo work, takes a step horizontally from the shambolic, Love-Hendrix hard pop of the Trees, favoring steely acoustics, rich, reverb-laden electric guitar (both courtesy of collaborator Mike Johnson), organ, bass (sometimes electric, sometimes upright) and gentle drumming. And, of course, Lanegan’s nicotine-scarred voice. Three out of five music writers will offer a lazy, facile comparison to fellow growler Tom Waits, though, understand there’s no characters and next to no smirking to be heard on Whiskey (unless you count the record’s opening sounds: someone whistling “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” – pure gallows humor). It’s with this voice that Lanegan introduces lyrics whose bare, elemental symbols recur not just on this record but with the rest of his body of work. Opener “The River Rise” introduces this unyielding force that condemns him to keep abusing himself, while nodding towards his “violent river” again in “Beggar’s Blues” and getting completely washed out and carried away by substances in “Borracho.”

It’s “Borracho,” uncharacteristically chaotic and distorted for this record, that essentially provides Whiskey’s mission statement; “Here come the Devil, prowlin’ round/ One whiskey for every ghost/ And I’m sorry for what I’ve done/ Lord, it’s me who knows what it cost.” Compelled to repeat self-destruction, Whiskey’s Lanegan drinks to each of the regrets that haunt him; he’s doomed to “a lifetime of thinking of you,” in “The River Rise,” half-remembers someone he suspects he’ll never see again in a “Shooting Gallery” and takes his first chance to get away from “a woman too good to believe” in “Sunrise.” Sole single “House a Home” expands further upon this. “I’m not the one,” he sings, “to make your house a home,” knowing full-well his problems are an anchor likely to irrevocably weigh down anyone he could find who’d love him. Instead, the man finds himself up to business as usual in “El Sol,” standing in the blinding light of day, unable to appreciate the sun’s warmth because he’s coming down too hard.

Interestingly, Lanegan’s loathing isn’t reserved for himself or his addiction. While “Riding the Nightingale” has him suspecting his old lady’s running around on him, Lanegan’s bile is reserved for the finale “Beggar’s Blues,” its title a reference of an old blues standard. Lanegan in this song isn’t brooding or mumbling into his shot glass so much as coolly breaking it off with someone. “I learned you are a liar,” he groans, “It’s right we should pretend/ And lie with one another.” Each stanza is dramatically punctuated by the kind of inhuman, metallic chord you might expect from The Firstborn is Dead-era Blixa Bargeld. It’s perhaps the album’s most chilling moment when, with clenched jaw, Lanegan demands, “I’ve been from one end of this street to the other/ Now, I want the gifts you promised me, lover,” the last word bursting at its seams with spite. Resolved to wander his own winter alone, he imagines his loneliness as a 10 mile-long chain of train cars; is that the wheels screeching on the track or is it her pleading screams for him to stay? Lanegan doesn’t know or care; she can look again for him when “ice is glistening,” when it’s the dead of winter, when all the warmth in the world is gone and death is near.

So, things have changed a little since then for the singing sons of the Pacific Northwest. With Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Mark Lanegan, Mike Johnson and a host of grunge-era personalities (Mudhoney’s Dan Peters, the Trees’ Mark Pickerel, Tad Doyle, J. Mascis), created a roiling, black cloud of a record that’s pretty hard to beat as a dark-night-of-the-soul soundtrack. It would be another four years before Lanegan would release a third record, Scraps at Midnight, itself showcasing a kind of tenderness completely lacking on Whiskey. But, in ’94, such emotions were only sources of regret and pain for the despairing Lanegan, whose dreams he watched “slip away…like this.” Whiskey for the Holy Ghost holds all its angst together at its center just long enough, for its 49 minutes, before Lanegan has had enough; “That’s all,” he says after singing “Beggar’s Blues” – and the music follows him on out the door.

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  1. Matti Paasio

    July 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Man, this is the best review I have ever read of anything!

    It captures the spirit of the work and offers new information… for me it did, at least.

    My heartfelt thanks to the writer! You are good!


  2. Anonymous

    March 16, 2019 at 11:46 pm

    It isn’t ”Oh, what a beautiful morning” that’s being whistled at beginning of the record, it’s ”Three o’clock in the morning”.


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