Mark Lanegan: Straight Songs of Sorrow review – emotionally frayed, feral and beautiful

The morbid lyrics are inspired by scarifying details of Lanegan’s early life

Straight Songs of Sorrow
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Artist: Mark Lanegan
Genre: Alternative
Label: Heavenly Records

The album title is right, but how else could it have turned out for a songwriter whose first 25 years were mired in wretched dysfunction? Released around the same time as his memoir (Sing Backwards and Weep, published by White Rabbit Books), Straight Songs of Sorrow is not just an adjunct – it’s a bunch of songs inspired by the scarifying details of Mark Lanegan’s early life. If the book is a no-holds-barred series of vignettes that would set your teeth on edge and make you wonder how he survived those years of enthusiastic self-destruction, the album is a softer but no less nerve-shredding option.

As a musician and singer, Lanegan started out about 35 years ago as the frontman of Washington state's Screaming Trees, a proto-grunge band that ran in a parallel pack with the likes of Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and others. Such was the damaged state of play in his head, however, Lanegan regularly sabotaged his band's chances of achieving not even close to the level of commercial success enjoyed by their peers.

In 2000, Screaming Trees split up, defeated, leaving Lanegan to continue the solo career he had arbitrarily began in 1990. Curiously, while the primary inspirations for Screaming Trees were a rake of punk and post-punk bands, the singer latterly became enthralled by the likes of Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, and numerous other practitioners of confessional songs. It is this sombre if somewhat ragged style that he has remained on close terms with.

Emotionally frayed and feral the tracks may be, but there is much beauty in Straight Songs of Sorrow. Over the years, and especially on his solo (and collaborative) work, Lanegan’s voice has become its own instrument (the press release likens it to “asphalt-laced linctus for the soul”), so the music here is overlaid with testament to such experience.


In truth, there is little here you could say is pretty or joyous. The lyrics are resolutely low-key if not morbid (they reference for the most part past encounters that Lanegan is "not proud of"), but what makes the songs worth hanging around for are golden textures provided by musicians that include Portishead's Adrian Utley, ex-Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Bad Seeds' Warren Ellis and regular musical sparring partner, Greg Dulli.

The album, much like his memoir, ends on a bright note. "Sunrise coming up, baby", sings Lanegan on Eden Lost and Found. But what trembling, shaking dark nights of the soul he has had to live through to see it. TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture