Mark Lanegan picked the perfect time to come back with an album. Few voices are better suited to soundtrack the death throes of a crumbling empire, and that’s precisely – if sometimes indirectly – what Blues Funeral is about: navigating desperate situations and desolate landscapes. Rihanna might have found love in a hopeless place; Lanegan’s hit a dead end. On the dogged “Phantasmagoria Blues,” he drawls, “I thought I’d rule like Charlemagne/ But I’ve become corrupt/ Now I crawl the promenade/ To fill my empty cup.” Shit, dude — talk about giving Cormac McCarthy a run for his money.
I’ve always vastly preferred Lanegan’s take on blues and folk to his grungier early days, because overblown arrangements just get in the way of his voice. Fittingly, on Funeral’s best tracks the production is downright skeletal; Lanegan’s inflection providing all the body and blood it needs. The bassline propping up leadoff track “The Gravedigger’s Song” sounds like someone scrambling to climb out of a hole, anxious and urgent, the perfect complement to a song about digging too deep into an obsession. Even the more robust tracks sound emaciated, the rhythm mixed high, the backing curling into place around it. The technique works especially well on “Ode to Sad Disco,” where the propulsive 2/4 beat makes a sturdy structure for Lanegan’s voice and snaky string arrangement tweaked to sound like hi-hats.
Funeral’s songs are recognizably “blues” in that they employ minor keys and make liberal use of pentatonic scales, but the “blues material” has been adapted for a modern age. In this world, bums liken themselves to fallen, storied kings and Jesus’ coming gets compared to a flight through St. Louis. And on the excellent “Harborview Hospital,” Lanegan listens to a vaunted, ethereal choir that can’t hear him, using that simple juxtaposition as a launch pad to make a crushing point about the chasms that exist in society, how remote and unreachable most physical property and emotional collateral is to most people.
As Funeral progresses, the songs’ subjects become increasingly susceptible to guilt and anxiety pressing in from external forces. The album is smartly constructed in that respect. It makes sense that your hell would begin with “The Gravedigger’s Song”’s gnawing one-sided obsession, then start to calm down as you begin to thread personal trauma into a larger context, which starts with “St. Louis Elegy”’s thousand-yard-stare. By the time the album ends with the sweeping “A Tiny Grain Of Truth,” Lanegan’s invoking the shadow king, croaking for a swift end, begging for a fresh start free from emotional baggage and a scabbed-over past. As Lanegan seems to see it, devastation is, well, devastating for sure – but it’s also a breeding ground for change. A funeral is a termination, but can also be a clean slate. Lanegan completely “gets” that duality – and wields it expertly.