Dark, introspective tunes cut deep
Mark Lanegan’s newest release Straight Songs of Sorrow comes at a moment when perhaps it is needed most. In the last two months, everyone around the world has become much more conscious of one defining aspect of their lives—time. Sitting with surplus time, straining on memories of passed time and pondering future time, eventually, there occurs a realization that time is infallible in times of crisis. It has an inevitable undeterred nature. For Lanegan, time seems to be at the center of his consciousness. He notes the significance of time within the course of his and all of our lives. Time never stops. It keeps going. And beware: it’s going to bring you along for the ride.
Lanegan demonstrates a sober understanding of this reality throughout the album with its hollow vocals, melancholy lyrics and slow instrumentals. He lingers on the unfortunate reality that time has no regard for our lives. On no other track is this more evident than “Ballad of A Dying Rover,” the most thoughtful and expansive song on the album. Arguably the most lucid and tantalizing track, this is a track which practically mandates personal introspection from the listener. Its chilling message is paraded afloat its distorted, bluesy riffs. The vocals are married harmoniously with the instrumentals to create a sort of early-Black-Keys-b-side-meets-Kurt-Cobain sound. Lanegan points to the fact that death is the ultimate reality (“I look down upon it all and wonder when it’s gonna end”). Cobain, himself, could have covered this song. Perhaps it could even be argued he would have, maybe in Nirvana’s 1994 MTV Unplugged performance. It would fit in perfectly just before Cobain’s culminating rendition of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” sending listeners reeling off into the night.
Other tracks maintain the overarching theme of bleakness and sorrow, drawing the listener into darkness. “Ketamine” examines the relationship between chemical dependence and a feeling of assurance, a feeling of which humans are so naturally fond. It goes on to spin an increasingly morbid yarn of desolation (“If I had a razor, I would cut you everywhere/ then I’d walk the whole of earth with a thousand-mile stare”). On “Skeleton Key” Lanegan shares with listeners his emotional reactions to time-related despair and questions the progression of his personal journey: “I spend all my life trying every way to die/ is it my fate to be the last one standing?”
The long, drawn-out measures and scratchy reverb of these tracks are reminiscent of David Bowie’s final studio album Blackstar and share its lyrical despondency. The track “Churchbells, Ghosts” is undeniably Bowie; its slow, verberating synths collide with a sweet little piano tune as Lanegan assesses his lack of direction and his evolution into an “aging hustler.”
There are some tracks on this album that deviate from the slow, soul-crushing, gut-wrenching sound that is so generally apparent. One track with brighter, tighter instrumentals is “Bleed All Over,” which grants the listener a break from the trudging on of the anguishing instrumentals despite its equally grim subject matter. In “Apples From A Tree” Lanegan presents a track which reflects on more inviting times of the past, a track to which listeners who are currently navigating precarious times and fondly recalling past days will surely relate. Its lyrics are not innately positive but they are less gloomy, despite Lanegan’s lingering skepticism of the value of these memories (“What I leave behind are memories to sell”). “Hanging On (For DRC)” contains a fun and airy melody reminiscent of a Nick Drake song, similar with regard to the introspective lyrics that coincide with beautiful, fleeting acoustic riffs.
With Straight Songs of Sorrow, the listener is getting just what is advertised. Lanegan goes very deep into his own mind in search of answers, rationale and past feelings. This album comes at an appropriate time: as instances of uncertainty and death cast an expansive shadow over mankind and the search for answers and meaning has become a more constant fixture of life in both a practical and philosophical sense, it offers commiseration. Listeners can cling to a sense of reassurance that comes in the form of shared uncertainty. Lanegan doesn’t have it all figured out, either, and this hurts him and haunts him like it would any other.