The Silent Type

Mark Lanegan's downbeat folk-rock speaks volumes -- without resorting to a whole lot of noise

Mark Lanegan is a man of few words. On the phone recently from a tour stop in Copenhagen, the singer/ songwriter issued brief, polite responses, doing nothing to dismantle his reputation as the silent type. Although it's 7 p.m. in the cold Danish capital, Lanegan speaks in a quiet, gravelly tone that seems to indicate he's just rolled out of bed. He complains of needing coffee, and when asked about the highlights of his 16-year career, the ex- Screaming Trees frontman quips, “Just getting up this morning was one of the highlights.”

It seems that neither easy mornings nor adrenaline stimulants will loosen this introspective performer's tongue. In the end, the best picture of Lanegan's mind comes from listening to his music. Queried about his emotionally eviscerating tunes, he shies away from the obvious connections between himself and his work. “The music I prefer has some mystery in it, and I'd prefer if my own music had some mystery,” he says. “Oftentimes I don't know what it is I'm saying or why. Sometimes [the meaning] reveals itself to me much later, if at all. The songs are not who I am, though. These records are not my diaries, although I'm sure there's personal aspects in there.”

While Lanegan may not be the world's chattiest musician, he is amazingly prolific, having put out five releases under his own name and a dozen more with the Screaming Trees. His rough voice is a thoroughly skilled instrument, able to invest each word with multiple emotions, moving from endless pain to stoic confession with a whiskey-soaked tone somewhere between Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits.

Dispensing with the Screaming Trees' hard psychedelic attack, Lanegan's solo music is richly textured folk-rock played with a light instrumental touch. Guitar chords stretch out to their last gasps, naked notes escape from pianos, and strings, bass, and stifled drums fill in symphonic spaces. Harmonicas sigh like languid train whistles, saxophones bleat like faraway foghorns, and human whistles sound like the last call of the lonely.

Lanegan's style — low-key, downbeat, murky — fits his personality, which may go a ways toward explaining why he's been greatly underappreciated as a songwriter. While other sad sacks like Elliott Smith head off to the Grammys, Lanegan continues to quietly plow his field, releasing critically hailed/commercially failed records on Sub Pop. Perhaps a spotlight is too much attention for the singer. As in the past, on his newest album, Field Songs, Lanegan seems content to let the complex storytelling do the talking.

Lanegan was born in the mid-'60s in Ellensburg, Wash., a college town 110 miles east of Seattle. By his midteens he was already in trouble with the cops; by 20 he was homeless and aimless, with a drug habit that would last over a decade. Lanegan finally found direction in 1985 when he reconnected with high school buddies Van and Gary Lee Conner, a pair of brothers who got him a job repossessing appliances and asked him to play drums for the Screaming Trees. When they realized he couldn't actually handle a kit, they convinced him to be their singer.

Over the next 11 years, the Screaming Trees released seven albums and a wealth of EPs, flitting around the periphery of the Northwest's grunge explosion. Although the band's psychedelic-tinged rock never quite caught on with the buying public, the Trees did become one of the first Seattle bands to get a major label deal (with Epic in 1989) and have a huge alternative radio hit (with “Nearly Lost You” from the Singles soundtrack in 1992).

Part of the group's problem was the constant fighting — both verbal and physical — between Lanegan and the Conner brothers. The band often seemed on the brink of breaking up: It took years off between albums and, when it did record, it sometimes scrapped the results entirely. Lanegan's use of crack and heroin held a firm grip on his life as well, leading to several arrests over the years. (Although he's apparently living a sober life in Los Angeles, he continues to produce tales of addiction and recovery for his records.)

Lanegan started making material on his own long before the Screaming Trees officially broke up in 2000. His first record, 1990's The Winding Sheet, was initially supposed to be an EP of blues songs with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Chris Novoselic, but only one tune — a cover of Leadbelly's “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” — made the final cut. Instead, Lanegan and guitarist Mike Johnson (the one-time Dinosaur Jr. bassist and longtime Lanegan co-conspirator) recorded the mostly acoustic material with former Tree Mark Pickerel on drums and respected producer Jack Endino on bass.

Four years later, Lanegan came out with his second solo project, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. With a cover designed to look like an ashtray cluttered with cigarette butts, the album features Lanegan's standard seamless blend of country blues, folk, and rock, littered with images of personal devils and fallen angels. The songs are full of religious and narcotic allusions but offer little hope for salvation and recovery. Most of the tracks trudge in a drowsy gait, drawing out their wounds with beautifully slow precision.

Lanegan applied the same delicate hand to his next two records, 1998's Scraps at Midnight and 1999's I'll Take Care of You. Scraps features “Last One in the World,” a moving ode to a lost companion written after the deaths of both Cobain and Gun Club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce, while I'll Take Care offers ghostly covers of obscure country and folk songs.

Lanegan's newest release, Field Songs, was issued by Sub Pop this May. The record is surprisingly hopeful — at least by comparison to his past efforts. The emphasis, as with all of Lanegan's albums, is on his sultry voice and downwardly mobile lyrics, both of which seem warmer and less cynical than on earlier releases. In “Kimiko's Dream House,” Lanegan comes as close to optimism as he probably can, singing, “Like I told you before/ Things are all right/ If I fall to the floor/ It's for closing my eyes.” Between stories of men who drink until they can't see and sober dudes who reminisce about pill-popping girlfriends, Lanegan admits that it's OK to lead a less turbulent life. He also buoys the lyrics here and there, allowing a small amount of sonic light into his perpetual darkness. “Miracle” works in the chimes of a bell, and “Pill Hill Serenade” includes some Hammond organ. An impressive list of guests — Built to Spill's Brett Netson, Guns 'N Roses' Duff McKagan, and Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd — adds to the proceedings without overloading the mix.

When it comes to discussing the album's inspirations, Lanegan is typically modest, describing his artistic process thus: “I mess around with the guitar and eventually I crawl out of my cave and form words. … Quite often I don't write lyrics until I have the microphone in front of me.” No matter how he spins it, though, Field Songs is a fine document of personal struggles, a blues album with a full palette of other colors peeking through. Whether based on his life or stemming from his own creative nightmares, Lanegan's songs are full of tortured souls who haunt the living like three-dimensional cautionary figures in a fable of woe.

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