Mark Lanegan is, you suspect, rarely surprised by what life deals him. But when the first song on his latest album is called “When Your Number Isn’t Up”, it seems possible that even this most unflappable of rock nihilists may be amazed by his survival. For much of the ’90s, hearsay suggested the hedonistic Lanegan would, like his friend Kurt Cobain, be a Seattle rock fatality. The records he made?both as a solo artist and as frontman of The Screaming Trees?seemed preoccupied with an inescapable procession towards death.
They did not, however, take into account the man’s stubborn constitution. Cleaned up, but still preoccupied with mortality, in recent years he has become a glowering, totemic fixture on Queens Of The Stone Age records as well as his own; an ominous presence by which rock’s outlaws and transgressives measure themselves. As a result, Bubblegum finds Lanegan in the midst of wild and disparate company, all feeding off his dark energies.
Mainly the music is provided by Josh Homme, who arranged the songs with Lanegan, and the extended Queens family (drawn from Mondo Generator, Earthlings?, Eleven and Masters Of Reality). But others pass through: Guns N’Roses renegades Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan; neglected grunge auteur Greg Dulli; and PJ Harvey, who spars with Lanegan on the catchy “Hit The City” and the tremulous “Come To Me”. It’s a departure from previous Lanegan solo LPs, which have focused on grimy exhumations of folk and blues, and painted him as a US counterpart to Nick Cave. This time, Lanegan is looser, open to both experimentation and, once more, full-on rock. So “Methamphetamine Blues”and the superb “Wedding Dress”, fired by sputtering drum machines and a distinct junkyard ambience, betray a kinship to Tom Waits. And the garage-psych of “Can’t Come Down”and “Sideways In Reverse”are the closest he has sounded to the Screaming Trees since their last album was released in 1996.
At heart, though, this is an entirely consistent record from a man who’s yet to make a bad one, and whose rasping gravitas has made him one of the great voices of our time. As ever, Lanegan portrays himself on the verge of oblivion?”I see the smoke from the revolver/Will I get hit? I hardly care,”he notes in “Bombed”?and waiting to be judged. He still has little hope for his soul, so even when he appropriates the form and language of gospel (on the beautifully understated “Strange Religion”), he rarely seems so sentimental as to countenance redemption?or at least redemption as we conventionally understand it. “This life might eventually just be the end of me,”he sings. If it is, few will have addressed it with such calm, rueful dignity.