Mark Lanegan has had a varied and colorful career that has now allowed him to perform the music that truly inspires him. Having started out with Seattle grunge band The Screaming Trees with the Conner brothers, whose defining moment was the song “Nearly Lost You” from both the Singles soundtrack and their album Sweet Oblivion, they were one of the first ones of that niche to sign to a major label. Eventually Nirvana and Soundgarden became the breadwinners of the scene and Screaming Trees faded into the distance. More recently, Lanegan joined Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri in the band Queens of the Stone Age. He sang on Songs for the Deaf and toured with the band. Since QOTSA broke up, Lanegan was left to pursue other projects, much to our advantage.
As is the case with Lanegan’s previous solo releases, including precursor EP, Here Comes that Weird Chill, the music of Bubblegum is dark and dirty blues. Rather than the grunge sound of Screaming Trees or the hard rock sound of QOTSA, Lanegan’s solo work is more akin to Tom Waits, Nick Cave, or his guest on the album, P.J. Harvey. His deep, gravelly voice is a combination of Waits and Leonard Cohen and twice as scary. The naming of that EP release was dead on as far as describing the feeling of listening to the “Mark Lanegan Band.” The makeshift ‘band’ that appears on Bubblegum features not only P.J. Harvey, but also his former QOTSA bandmates Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, Greg Dulli, formerly of the Afghan Whigs, and Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan of both Guns ‘n Roses and Velvet Revolver.
While opening track “When Your Number is Up” is a slow murder ballad that could easily fit on the Nick Cave album of such songs, “Hit the City” really kicks the album off in the direction of rock. It’s a duet with P.J. Harvey that stands alongside some of her best. “Wedding Dress” references the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, with its echoing of last line “We got married in a fever.” And by the way, speaking of black, that album cover, save for the lettering, could be `none more black.’ Some might be thrown off by the album title which is taken from a line in the song “Bombed,” “When I’m bombed I stretch like bubblegum / And look too long straight at the morning sun.” “Methamphetamine Blues” is the only repeat song from the EP and features Greg Dulli on guitar. It and “Sideways in Reverse” are the hardest rocking songs on the album. “Come to Me” is the second song to feature P.J. Harvey and is the polar opposite to “Hit the City,” slow and methodical instead of quick and driven.
Lanegan definitely gets to flex his blues chops with “Like Little Willie John,” steeped in blues guitar licks and lots of “Lord I’m all alone tonight” and “Where’s my baby?.” “Morning Glory Wine” reminds me of U2’s “Hallelujah, Here She Comes.” Not only is it similar in its feel and slow instrumental buildup, but it is also akin to the band’s concept of their album Rattle and Hum. With that album, U2 went in search of the American rock and blues sound that they were so enamored with, employing the likes of B.B. King and covering Bob Dylan and Hawkwind. Lanegan does pretty much the same, exploring his love of the blues traditions of America and celebrating it as a journeyman of rock `n roll. “Head” sounds like a scary version of Status Quo’s and later Camper Van Beethoven’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” The riff is pretty much a rip-off, but the lyrics and title more reflect Prince. Imagine a blues song in both senses of the word, that is, sad but a little naughty.
“Driving Death Valley Blues,” a song about drug addiction that seems perfect for a sequel to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, (after all, there’s a ton more Sailor and Lula stories to adapt) is the closest thing to a Queens of the Stone Age song on the album. Sometimes, closing songs on albums can tend to be ignored, and sometimes they’re the best songs on the album. Weezer’s “Only in Dreams,” Coldplay’s “Amsterdam,” and Keane’s “Bedshaped” are examples for the latter and now so is “Out of Nowhere,” a cross between Johnny Cash and Jeff Buckley if that can even be imagined.
Let’s be clear, this album is dark. It can, however, stand alongside such great downer albums as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s I See a Darkness, Johnny Cash’s American series of albums, and Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. It might not bear a whole lot of repeated listening for fear of self-damage, but it’s a great companion for whiskey and Lucky Strikes.