If Death were a man of blood and bone, romantic notions would lead a wager that he'd have a voice akin to Mark Lanegan's – hypnotically magnetic, a whiskey-in-the-ashtray grit with supernatural depth.
"I hear the winter will cut you quick," Lanegan measures in a slow growl on St. Louis Elegy, a handful of songs into Blues Funeral, his seventh solo album. "If tears were liquor, I'd have drunk myself sick." The clarity in the moment of his spiritual crossing is a troubled awakening, an usher into final, undesired territories: "Here I am earthly bound / said Hallelujah, I'm going down / and the River Jordan is deep and wide /I think I see forever across on the other side".
Blues Funeralis set for release on February 6th via 4AD, and is Lanegan's first solo output since 2004's excellent Bubblegum. Naturally, he's been quite active in the interim, with stints in and with Queens Of The Stone Age, The Twilight Singers, The Gutter Twins, Soulsavers, Isobel Campbell and beyond keeping his name – and talents – fresh in our minds. Recorded with Queens of The Stone Age/Them Crooked Vultures/Eleven multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes at his 11AD studios in Hollywood, CA, Blues Funeral features appearances from numerous friends and collaborators including Jack Irons (Eleven, Pearl Jam), Greg Dulli (Gutter Twins), Josh Homme (Queens of The Stone Age) and, of course, the inimitable Johannes.
While never quite stepping out from under the shroud of lonely-campfire isolation, the album runs a stylistic gamut, leaping between ominous groove-rock and 80s synth-melancholia with casual confidence and varying influence. The night-drive anthem of Grey Goes Black leans on an eerie early Jonny Greenwood riff, enjoying an emotive solo before a drum machine supplants the kit with an understated yet urgent breakbeat.
A vital component of the man's magic is in his unique vocal and timing arrangements, accentuation anomalies within his gravel-worn leather baritone. Like the onset of a powerful psychedelic, Phantasmagoria Blues sets on the regrets and hangups of the introspectively inclined, a funereal reflection on lost hopes and shortcomings. It's a fitting accompaniment to Leviathan's slow-marching burial hymn. "I lay my guns on the table," he admits, before confiding that the hangman is on his trail. It's in the end where the hypnosis takes effect, however, with four vocal parts overlapping, and at least three voices in the mix. We hear Mark, of course, as well as Johannes and legendary producer Chris Goss.
The guitar kicks into gear on Riot In My House, delivering a welcome uptempo change to an otherwise true-to-title album. Chaos is blossoming, ferocious dogs are prowling, and Josh Hommes' guitar serves a squealing counter to Mark's vocal. It comes unleashed after the two-minute mark, leading the charge into a downright riotous groove over handclaps and pounding high-note keys that would do Natasha Shneider proud.
Ode To Sad Disco leaps with both feet into Erasure territory – yes, the Chains of Love Erasure – with full 80s synth keys, drum machines and a breezy near-falsetto (about children losing their minds) that's just about the last thing we'd expect from this particular grey wolf. But Blues Funeral certainly confirms Lanegan's unpredictability, as well as his knack for flashing chameleon colors across the style spectrum. Look to Harborview Hospital for further evidence, where heavily effects-laden guitars lead Lanegan through programmed drums and a heartbeat throb into a feeling of ethereal purgatory, akin to that found at the apex of Puscifer's Oceans.
But Quiver Syndrome sets us right again, a proper Rock jam with a buzzing lead and snapping percussion that could've qualified it for inclusion on QOTSA's Songs For The Deaf. Sexy, strutting and nightmarishly dangerous on a juggernaut groove with psychedelic frills, it encompasses everything the desert gods do best – and is that Homme we hear again on the "oooh" backups?
Lanegan's quality consistency leads us confidently through a spectral variety of sound that few other artists can convincingly achieve. His haunted romance and midnight hymns have reached new heights on Blues Funeral, and we're happily chasing the hearse down that old dirt road, once again.
CraveOnline Rating: 9.5 out of 10