Born to Brood: Mark Lanegan’s Dark Art

Looking back on the broken beauty of a Screaming Tree

Mark Lanegan (Image: YouTube)

If a boulder had a voice, spent centuries smoking unfiltered cigarettes, and had a heartful of regrets and disappointments to express, it still wouldn’t match the gravelly gravitas of Mark Lanegan. 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The idea of rock music as a dying art gained a lot of ground when Lanegan, one of the most distinctive rock voices around, left us on February 22 at the age of fifty-seven. In a career that was coming in sight of its fourth decade, Lanegan drew on a life loaded with personal struggles to brew dark, stirring visions that were part cautionary tale, part survivor’s story, and 100% captivating.

As detailed in his memoir (one of two) Sing Backwards and Weep, the Ellensburg, WA native grappled with substance abuse issues throughout his life, but he always kept on working. Between his time as the singer for Screaming Trees, his solo career, and his countless collaborations, he became the ultimate alt-rock journeyman. But nobody sounded like Mark Lanegan, and every piece of his prolific output bears his unmistakable stamp.

Lanegan operated against the grain from the beginning. When he and his fellow Screaming Trees began their recording career in 1985, the idea of Seattle as a musical hub would have been considered laughable, never mind a little town 100 miles East like Ellensburg. And even if they had kicked off their career in a hotspot like L.A., their mix of punky edge and ‘60s garage-psych influences wasn’t exactly American Bandstand fodder at the time. 

 

AUDIO: Screaming Trees “Transfiguration”

Nevertheless, they pushed forward, Lanegan’s leonine roar leading the charge on a string of indie albums that did a lot more to inspire other bands than they did to boost the Tree’s profile. When their time to shine finally came with the Seattle grunge explosion they’d helped lay the groundwork for, they had evolved from being the post-punk Doors to serving up a roiling brew of ‘70s hard-rock-inspired sturm und drang.

Their 1991 album Uncle Anesthesia was the Trees’ first major-label LP, but by then, Lanegan had already started exploring other avenues. His solo debut, 1990’s The Winding Sheet, repositioned him as the Dostoevsky of coffeehouse troubadours, mostly trading the crash and burn of the Trees for something quieter, doomier, and even more intense, as he aired his demons more overtly than ever before. Lanegan’s pals in Nirvana helped out on a couple of tracks, including a nightmare-inducing version of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” (a.k.a. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”) that eventually led to Nirvana’s legendary cover of the tune. 

 

AUDIO: Mark Lanegan “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

It was 1992’s Sweet Oblivion that got the Trees on mainstream radio and MTV, mostly thanks to “Nearly Lost You,” a chugging charmer with an almost Motown-worthy hook given a big boost by its place on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-focused film Singles. In the wake of that success came Lanegan’s second solo album, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. A masterpiece of glower power, it was even spookier than its predecessor, and it showcased Lanegan’s bottomless pipes more than any record had before, making it clearer than ever that he was one of Generation X’s most commanding singers. 

Screaming Trees would only release one more album, but starting with 1998’s Scraps at Midnight, Lanegan launched himself into his solo career more fully than ever. On his 1999 covers album, I’ll Take Care of You, (not to mention the 2013 sequel, Imitations) he revealed a range wider than anyone might have expected, transforming tunes by fellow travelers (The Gun Club, The Leaving Trains) and inspirations (Fred Neil, Tim Hardin) alike. 

In the 2000s, it seemed like much of the musical world had a sudden, simultaneous epiphany about Lanegan’s black magic. Maybe it was a reaction against the era’s flood of wan, wispy man-children half-singing in front of indie bands or in solo balladeer settings—there might have been more need than ever for a towering tree who sang from his well weathered roots. Lanegan never paused his solo flow, but his phone started ringing off the hook with collaboration invites from a disparate cast of characters. 

The far-flung nature of these collaborators underlined the surprising adaptability of that monolithic moan. On 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas, Lanegan began a long, luminous partnership with Isobel Campbell of Belle and Sebastian, where he played a postmodern Lee to her Nancy for some sumptuous velvet mourning. He brought a touch of class to the hard-rock hammer-thumping of Queens of the Stone Age starting with their 2000 album Rated R. He guested with Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers, eventually forming the duo The Gutter Twins with him. He worked with electronic-tinged neo-noir duo Soulsavers. 

 

AUDIO: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan “Revolver”

In retrospect, it’s amazing that Lanegan kept up a solid pace with his solo albums throughout the 2010s. He popped up on songs by Neko Case, British trip-hop siren Martina Topley-BIrd, Moby, Slash, UNKLE, ex-Stooge James Williamson, Malian desert-rockers Tinariwen, and God knows how many more. He ultimately became a kind of doom-rock elder statesman, the Edgar Allen Poe of the alternative nation. But for as much as he may have been typecast by others, Lanegan never played it safe or got stuck in a comfort—or discomfort, as the case may be—zone. Up until the very end he kept on pushing himself and exploring new vistas. His last release was the electronic duo project Dark Mark vs. Skeleton Joe, with The Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone, where the pair situated themselves as a sort of modern-day Suicide. 

The pandemic hit Lanegan hard. Close to its beginning, he was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19 and came within a hair’s breadth of dying. Seemingly unstoppable, he eventually emerged from it, even publishing a book about the experience, Devil in a Coma. It seemed like we’d have him around for a lot longer, but fate had other ideas, and Lanegan was found dead in his home in Killarney, Ireland on February 22, 2022. But nobody who spent so much time giving voice and form to the shadows and murky mists can ever truly fade into darkness. 

 

VIDEO: Mark Lanegan and Dylan Carson of Earth perform Galaxie 500’s “Summertime”

 

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