Mark Lanegan has been a treasure hiding in plain sight for a long time. While stints with Queens of the Stone Age and his earlier launch as the voice of the Screaming Trees put him on the map in the wider world, it has been his subtle, moody work with Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs) in The Gutter Twins and The Twilight Singers, his guest turn with Soulsavers, duet records with Isobel Campbell (from Belle & Sebastian) and a steady flow of high quality, underrated solo records that argue for higher placement in the modern canon. Latter day Lanegan sounds like a mournful, sinning oak tree – his voice a guttural bellow that sounds like nothing so much as a form of emotional weather, both strained and inevitable.
His latest, Gargoyle, squares the rock instincts of his more raucous records like Bubblegum with the trajectory he established with 2012’s Blues Funeral – a record that used tactical synths to add wistful flesh to the harrowing bones of his songs. There’s something brilliant and counterintuitive about it – draping the songs in Born in the USA synths shouldn’t work, but as his voice ages and grinds, it’s the best antidote to what could be a descent into Tom Waits-junky-hobo schtick. As a result a song like “Old Swan” glides past six minutes with a gentle wake, bookending the menacing open of “Death’s Head Tattoo” and the clangy “Nocturne,” where Lanegan is pure goth without the trappings.
At times, the croaky held notes and the anachronistic sonics don’t totally gel—“Blue Blue Sea,” and “First Day of Winter” never find a tempo that takes them convincingly out of the sketchbook—and the overall sequencing feels haphazard at times. Still, even these flaws set up effective contrast for the album’s highlight. “Goodbye To Beauty,” a truly stunning dusk-or-dawn lament that’s never cloying because it’s Mark Lanegan and he sounds so goddamn raw. Preceded by “Emperor,” a sly dose of Nuggets-y pop, it rounds out the album’s burning core in shabby majesty.
These aren’t songs you hum on the subway. They will never be in a beer commercial. You’ve dosed wrong if you dance to them. But it doesn’t matter – Mark Lanegan makes blues for our time, chopping up sonic tropes, stretching them over handcarved laments, wrenching them from his throat and bleeding badly all over them.