Album review: Mark Lanegan, ‘Blues Funeral’ (4AD)

March 6, 2012

Together with Kurt Cobain and Mark Arm of Mudhoney, the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan was one of the three great male singers of the alternative-rock era, perhaps the best of them, but certainly the one who’s given us the most varied settings for his remarkable whiskey-coated, sand-blasted instrument in the years post-grunge. For much of the last decade, he’s subsumed himself in collaborations, with Isobel Campbell in a postmodern, domina-driven take on Sinatra/Hazelwood, with Greg Dulli in the Gutter Twins and with the British electronic production team Soulsavers.

For his seventh solo album, his first since the brilliant Bubblegum (one of my choices for the 10 best records of 2004), he easily could have returned to the formula that’s served him so well, an aggressive roots-rock evoking a more punk Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. Yet he chose to buck expectations while working with producer Alain Johannes (Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) by bringing an electronic filter to his familiar sounds, with the most prominent sonic touchstones ranging from ’80s New Romantic synth-pop (“Ode to Sad Disco”) to a slightly more industrial-techno vibe (“The Gravedigger’s Song”), but with a bit of mid-period U2 grandeur (“Harborview Hospital) and a stretch of Beach Boys harmonizing-meets-Led Zeppelin plod (“Leviathan”) thrown in for good measure.

On paper, this may sound like a dubious enterprise, and indeed, together with song lengths and tempos that tend toward the epic dirge, Blues Funeral is dividing many long-time fans into camps firmly con and enthusiastically pro. Count me in the latter. We’ve heard Lanegan do the roots thing, and it’s not only illuminating to hear that incredible voice in unexpected forums, but quite a bit of fun to boot, even as it somberly wraps itself around sometimes ponderous lyrics (“I thought I’d rule like Charlemagne but I’ve become corrupt/Now I crawl the promenade to fill my empty cup”; “The diamond-headed serpent climbs the vines,” etc.). Consider it the ideal soundtrack for a rainy, gray Monday morning, but just as rewarding on any other down-tempo occasion when you’re in the mood to brood.

Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.

(Listen to the Sound Opinions review here.)