Bubblegum – Mark Lanegan Band

Mark Lanegan Band

review by Nelson Stanley

Mark Lanegan, former lead singer of Seattle's awesome psych-blues band Screaming Trees, sometime Nirvana collaborator and one-time Queen Of The Stone Age, is not a happy chap.Bubblegum, his sixth solo album (although credited to a 'band', this is more of an ensemble piece), illustrates that point from the off. Opening track When Your Number Isn't Up - a cheery tale of a botched suicide - hums at a funereal pace, all dead-end beats, twinkling late night piano and eerie keyboard fills. Lanegan's rasping voice is an extraordinary instrument; there is just nothing like it in the entirety of rock's canon. Lanegan could, to slip into cliché, read his shopping list out and make it sound vulnerable, intimate and full of woe. That voice is both incredibly warm and incredibly ravaged, part gravel-gargle and part supple croon and if you haven't heard it, then you've missed the most compelling singer in modern rock. Johnny Cash, you feel, would be a fan.

Obviously a great voice is nothing without great material - and great execution of that material - to back it up, and that's why Bubblegum is the best album released this year. The most apt thematic comparison is the blues, one of a number of pre-rock forms which his previous solo albums have explored in their original forms; but this is a 21st century blues record, occasionally startling in its use of uncommon, unexpected elements. It's split roughly evenly between moving, sensual ballads and full-tilt rockers that leave you feeling like you've been run over by a truck.

Yet the man displays a sense of humour on the more violent, bleak tracks: Methamphetamine Bluesclanks and growls with synths, feedback and backward phasing effects sprawling uncomfortably out of the mix, while Lanegan does a knowing call and response with his female backing singers calling him 'Daddy'. It should not sit as well as it does, and one is left wondering how he slipped that one past you. Then there's Sideways In Reverse, a breathtaking two-chord rocker; if he's not actually singing about cunnilingus under the semi-industrial barrage of distortion and feedback, then I'll eat the CD.

Blessed with a bassline that threatens the integrity of your speakers, Hit The City is driven along by messy, mechanistic drumming from QOTSA head honcho Josh Homme, and under a half-ton of grime Lanegan and Polly Harvey wail and shriek like, yes, they're dying. Polly returns on Come To Me, a weird, off-time ballad that manages the difficult trick of veering between longing and a kind of diseased intimacy. Despite occasionally sounding like he's ticking items off a list of junkie clichés, he also manages some startlingly original images to go with the plethora of beautiful melodies on display. Bombed is a fantastic, minimalist scrawl in which he declares that when wasted he stretches "just like bubblegum," and One Hundred Days - despite being a tale of wandering around a red light district - is charming, witty and affecting.

For a dark album that's about death, love, loss and self-destruction, full of low-lifes, failed suicides, botched drug deals and broken hearts, this is an uplifting record. One crawls out at the end having sonically reeled between astonishing poles of light and darkness that are rarely approached on a modern rock record. That he's willing to go there for us, and report back, we should be thankful. That he's finally found a musical palette to paint with that not only complements his voice but makes its delivery that much more effective... I can only say this: Greg Dulli, Ween, Chris Goss, the QOTSA pair of Nick Oliveri and Josh Homme, even P.J. Harvey; give up your day jobs. Make music with Mark Lanegan for the rest of your careers.