A year and a half ago, I had a perfectly lovely telephone conversation with Isobel Campbell, the former Belle & Sebastian member who has recorded three ultra-satisfying albums of Nancy Sinatra pastiche with Mark Lanegan. And during that conversation, I learned something about Lanegan that seems to throw this entire career into stark relief: He is a massive fan of the Los Angeles Clippers. More specifically, he is someone who will fly on three separate planes to get to a Clippers game. And given that the Clippers have historically been one of the great lost causes of professional sports, Lanegan’s weatherbeaten voice and hard-luck laments make a whole lot more sense; I can just picture the man intoning his scorched-earth rumbles into a studio mic while ruminating on that time the Clips had the number-one overall draft pick and ended up with Michael Olowokandi. But all of a sudden this year, the Clippers matter. They’ve got Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and arguably the most exciting young team in the NBA, and they’re beating the Lakers. And now Lanegan has released his most unburdened album in many, many years. This cannot be a coincidence.
Blues Funeral, I hasten to add, is still called Blues Funeral. It’s not like Lanegan has suddenly morped into Rihanna. His voice is still one of rock’s great natural wonders: A craggy, apocalyptic croon that seems to belong in a Cormac McCarthy novel. To describe it, you want to use the same adjectives that you’d use to describe good whiskey, or antique leather furniture, or desert landscapes. It’s a voice that can sell ridiculous, overbearing lyrics with the sort of conviction that nobody would ever dare question, and Lanegan has spent decades taking advantage of that. That voice is the reason Lanegan can get away with naming the second song on his new album “Bleeding Muddy Water” and stretching its spaghetti-western blues throb on past six minutes. He knows we’ll stay with him even during indulgences like that because he knows they won’t sound like indulgences.
But Blues Funeral isn’t some long American groan. Lanegan is a part-time Queen Of The Stone Age. He recorded the album with Queens associate Alain Johannes, who also played a ton of instruments on it. And it’s not too surprising that big chunks of the album — first single and opening track “The Gravedigger’s Song” in particular rock hard, with a drawn-out faraway Hawkwind/Spacemen 3 type of space-riffage. That song and “Riot In My House” come with riffs so bottom-heavy that they vibrate the dirty dishes on my desk when I’m listening to it, and Lanegan knows how to inhabit songs like this just as well as he knows to inhabit the dusty spaghetti-western tracks.
But it’s a little more surprising that Lanegan gives over a decent chunk of the album to what I guess you’d have to call synthpop. “Ode To Sad Disco” and “Harborview Hospital” and “Tiny Grain Of Truth” have drum-machine bounce-beats and keyboard textures so effervescent that it’s like this granite wraith suddenly joined latter-day Saint Etienne. Lanegan doesn’t adjust his singing style at all on these tracks, and that’s the main reason that they don’t sound out of character even if they’re total stylistic left-turns. But they work, and they’re paced out across the album so that they break up the immersive grimness at the perfect moments. Lanegan doesn’t sound happy on these songs, certainly, but they bring a lightness of the soul that suggests that happiness isn’t necessarily some distant impossibility. And so Lanegan, after all these years, reveals that his heavy wonder of a voice is capable of things more complicated than the world realized. All those Blake Griffin alley-oops must be paying off.
Blues Funeral is out today on 4AD.
Other albums of interest out this week: Sharon Van Etten’s lavish and guest-bedecked Aaron Dessner collaboration Tramp, the Twilight Sad’s tough and gnarled postpunk move No One Can Ever Know, Air’s organ-soaked psych-pop odyssey Le Voyage Dans Le Lune, John Talabot’s lush Balearic dance effort ƒin, Royal Bath’s zonked-out fuzz-rock LP Better Luck Next Life, of Montreal’s characteristically jittery Paralytic Stalks, and the slightly perplexing Van Halen comeback effort A Different Kind Of Truth.