Mark Lanegan: An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood Photo by Steve Gullick

Very recently we learned of the incredibly sad news that singer Mark Lanegan has died, aged 57. Lanegan was an integral part of grunge when it surfaced in the 1990s, both in a solo capacity and as vocalist for his band Screaming Trees. He went on to enjoy a richly creative career for the next three decades.

He did so in the face of great adversity, for Lanegan’s adolescence was riddled with crime and dependency on alcohol and drugs. He faced these with remarkable strength, reaching a long period of abstinence, with those struggles detailed in his recently released autobiography Devil in a Coma. The title is a reference to a prolonged bout of Covid in 2021, which left him hallucinating and in a coma.

All these elements of his life can be felt in his music, his voice often painting pictures of unfathomable darkness, but also using the power of music as a release to help him out of those holes.

My first encounter with Lanegan’s voice was relatively late in his career, after his work with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age and just as he started collaborating with Soulsavers in 2007. The song Kingdoms Of Rain stopped me dead in my tracks and lingered long in the mind, for although there was darkness at its heart there was a spiritual element that spoke of hope and light around the edges:

The next Soulsavers collaboration, Revival, was even more explicit in its search for redemption, offering spiritual solace in the company of a troupe of gospel singers. A majestic song, seemingly modelled on Bob Dylan’s Knocking At Heaven’s Door, it is a musical treasure – and seeing it live at Bush Hall, London in 2007 it is a memory I will never forget.

A year later I was booked in to do an interview with him to talk about his new album as one half of The Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli. In hindsight, I should not have agreed – it was 10am on a Saturday morning and I was to phone him at a hotel in Amsterdam. It was quickly clear that he was not enthusiastic about the idea, and I got the impression he had been given a busy program of interviews he did not feel happy about. He was entirely professional, but we got through 15 questions in five minutes, and the answers, though unfailingly polite, were monosyllabic. We said an amiable goodbye, but the interview was never written up.

Lanegan’s happy place was clearly in the music, and a wealth of tributes from fellow artists confirm he was a joy to work with. He became so prolific that it was hard to keep pace with all his endeavours. The need to make music was primal, filling the gaps he had previously crammed with other stimulants. Three albums with Isobel Campbell were made, cementing a special partnership that saw their first album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, nominated for a Mercury Prize. The Gutter Twins collaboration, Saturnalia, left a powerful and more guitar-fuelled impact.

Lanegan’s voice was always at the forefront of anything to which he contributed, instantly recognisable. It was shaded like the finest bourbon, but with a cracked upper register that regularly let the light in, like a deeper blend of The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Nick Cave.

He continued to work with Soulsavers, and another album, Broken, moved him from occasional guest to centre stage vocalist.

It exceeded the creative heights of the first, headed by the remarkable Death Bells:

However it was now time to move to a solo setting, yielding another rich vein of creativity that Lanegan mined with 4AD, Vagrant and latterly Heavenly Recordings. With them he made the Gargoyle, Somebody’s Knocking and Straight Songs Of Sorrow albums, consistently fulfilling records that had moments of wide-eyed optimistic in their outlook.

Songs like Beehive were building on the promise shown by Harvest Home, an example from the Phantom Radio album of 2014. This gives a good example of Lanegan singing higher over a much more energetic beat:

Lanegan’s voice made him suitable for guest slots with electronic music producers. Sadly my wish to see him do a collaboration with Massive Attack was not fulfilled, but vocal turns on the music of Bomb The Bass, Moby and UNKLE brought previously unseen elements to their music as well as his. The singer’s stage presence continued to be magnetic, as those lucky enough to see him at London’s KOKO in 2017 would surely agree. Brooding, dark as night for sure – but smiling more now, totally at home in charge of another batch of majestic songs.

Given the troubles and obstacles he faced in life, it is remarkable that Mark Lanegan made it as far as 57. That he did is testament to the healing power of music, and thankfully he has left us with some truly wonderful material to savour, for which we are extremely grateful.

You can read a obituary for Mark Lanegan written by Will Burns, on the Heavenly Recordings website:

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