Straight Songs of Sorrow can be a lot to take in in one sitting, but, hell, what else do we have going on in these strange, strange days?
The last decade has been insanely prolific for Mark Lanegan, releasing a new album roughly once a year since 2010’s Isobel Campbell collaboration, Hawk. It’s an impressive streak that has seen the former Screaming Trees vocalist continuously putting out a consistently high level of quality recordings as he settles into middle age. Straight Songs of Sorrow continues this winning streak with yet another solid set of songs that find him once more exploring his folkier/bluesier impulses, albeit more often than not augmented by the more electronic elements that have cropped up on his recent albums, most notably 2019’s Somebody’s Knocking.
Yet where that album offered listeners songs bordering on the upbeat and, in some cases, even danceable, Straight Songs of Sorrow provides just that and more. Long known for his brooding lyrical explorations of lives lived hard and often full of brokenhearted loneliness, darkness and isolation, this latest set continues mining familiar lyrical territory, yet manages to combine some of the best elements of his previous works for a highly enjoyable listening experience. Strongest among these is the haunting “This Game of Love,” a duet with wife Shelley Brien.
While certainly reminiscent of his work with Campbell, Brien’s voice possesses a far grittier timbre and is better suited to Lanegan’s own burr, the two melding seamlessly into a singular voice that foregoes his previous darkness-and-light duet pairings. It’s a highly effective sound that helps add yet another level to Lanegan’s approach and, given the intimate nature of their relationship, lends heft to lines like, “Free my soul of emptiness/ I know the taste of sorrow” and “Time and again I failed a test/ As painful as a heart attack.” Couched as it is within a classic goth instrumental framework – all sputtering electronic drums and alternately soothing and menacing synth swells – it’s a love song for the blackest of hearts to take comfort in.
“Bleed All Over” is the closest he comes to retreading the territory covered on Somebody’s Knocking, the tempo up and the rhythm far more driving that nearly anything else here. Yet it still retains that undercurrent of darkness that permeates the album, its imagery of needles and loss all but spelling out the death of a scene in which his former band played a prominent role. “I’m haunted by these monochrome nightmares,” he cries as the song lurches towards its climactic final moments.
One of the album’s heaviest moments comes on “Ballad of a Dying Rover,” a plodding ballad in classic Led Zeppelin mode. No surprise then that former Zep bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones shows up on mellotron to help lend an additional air of authenticity to the song’s lethargic “When the Levee Breaks”-dirge-like feel. Elsewhere, “Churchbells, Ghosts” relies on an ‘80s synth wash, plaintive piano and reverb-drenched vocal performance that again borders on goth rock territory without falling completely into self-parody with Lanegan’s heavy reliance on dark and dangerous imagery.
The album’s centerpiece is the seven-minutes-plus “Skeleton Key,” a brooding, eerie distillation of all Lanegan’s requisite lyrical tropes that serves as a calling card of sorts for both the album and Lanegan’s most recent output. That he manages to retain the listener’s interest through the entirety of the track is a credit to his willingness to push himself musically into new and different territory, while still remaining otherwise aesthetically within his proverbial wheelhouse.
At over an hour in running time, Straight Songs of Sorrow can be a lot to take in in one sitting, but, hell, what else do we have going on in these strange, strange days? Might as well spend one of the increasingly endless number of hours stretching out ahead of us exploring the darker corners of Mark Lanegan’s mind. Besides, how could you go wrong with a song title like “Daylight in the Nocturnal House”?