Mark Lanegan's haunting career receives a fitting retrospective
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
With three records housed inside a heavyweight slipcase, the listener gets a tour of the artist’s trajectory, a trip through some of the most chilling songs released in its time. There are signature tracks and stylistic detours, yet everything seems to serve the greater purpose of telling the singer’s story. And when it’s over, the feeling left is that this is a body of work of one of the greats.
This is a box set fit for a superstar, a genius of the highest order. And it’s true, even if it’s not necessarily the kind of career that’s soon to be lauded by a special edition of Rolling Stone or whoever is ordained to officially document that kind of thing.
This is Has God Seen My Shadow?, an anthology tracing the incredible journey of Mark Lanegan. It’s as skillful a collection as has been released in years, and and the subtlety with which it’s been compiled and released is all the more fitting for this unique voice. Via three LPs, it serves as living recognition of Lanegan’s unapproachable brilliance.
The compilation focuses on the quietest and deepest pools of Lanegan’s solo work, trading some of the bigger guitar crunches for the solitary rumination that lives in his most haunting work. Working in a loosely reverse chronology, “Bombed” sets the stage for the mellow blues that’s to follow across the next six sides as Lanegan, armed with little more than a guitar or two by his side, channels the depths to deliver these songs.
Unlike the anthologies his peers might release, Lanegan isn’t burdened by hits, choosing the moments based solely on how they tell his story and how they illustrate the body of work on pure musical grounds. It’s this freeing aspect that allows him to include the slow burn of “Mirrored” from the backside of the “Hit the City” single, or the rootsy “Lexington Slow Down” from 2004’s Here Comes That Weird Chill EP. These deep nuggets fit right alongside the acoustic blues of “Resurrection Song” or the upticking “Wild Flowers” from his 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet. He’s chosen the music the way a filmmaker pares down a director’s cut (itself a masterpiece, as Lanegan’s full career is concerned) into a 90-minute thriller, with all tension and suspense secure.
While a mythical 10-LP compilation that covers his turns with Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, the Gutter Twins, Isobell Campbell and others might be required later, what’s left here is a blazing reminder of how powerful he’s been on the albums carried by his own name. And even then, it’s easy to forget that there are a number of standouts that were left off, or that he’s released two more solo albums (and a third with guitarist Duke Garwood) from the point after Has God Seen My Shadow? stops counting.
But it’s a testament to how strong this material is that a number of personal favorites — “Methamphetamine Blues,” “Borracho” and “On Jesus’ Program,” to name three — aren’t present, yet nothing feels missed. From track to track, unknown rarity and album staple alike, everything feels revelatory and gains strength from the simple mastery of sequencing. If the point of this box set was to reinforce just how powerful Lanegan can be on vinyl, then mission accomplished. Even in leaving off some of his best work, the rest carries right along and fills in the gaps.
The unreleased tracks on the third LP provide an alternate history and extra notes to the paths that Lanegan chose on his solo albums. “Dream Lullabye” shows an even gentler side than we got to see on Bubblegum’s quietest moments, but “Leaving New River Blues,” from the same era, has the earthy weight of the Mississippi blues that sounds amazing as-is, or could’ve melted faces if attached to the kind of heavy, pulsating electric sound that he follows when he feels like it.
“Grey Goes Black” is a stripped-down acoustic tune that bears little resemblance apart from name to the one that appeared on 2012’s Blues Funeral, while “Blues Run the Game,” recorded live in 2000 in Portland, has the intimacy of a tiny coffee house, with Lanegan’s voice floating above a guitar and the quiet whisper of of the crowd as they sit and watch. Until an amp blows out, of course, and Lanegan, notoriously averse to chatting on stage, is left unarmed and joking with the crowd while guitarist Mike Johnson is able to regroup and keep the song going. From there, it’s back to business, Lanegan back into his hushed growl, singing for the captive, enthralled audience. The music keeps going.
Maybe it was the handwritten lyrics or simply the three-record package, but the parallels to Neil Young’s own Decade package were hard to ignore. Decade was a best-selling compilation as educational as it was revelatory, providing context and history to Young’s story as it enlightened new and entrenched fans alike to the man’s brilliance. The key difference here, of course, is that even if he might’ve been under-appreciated in 1977, Young was an acknowledged superstar. In 2014, Lanegan is only thought of as such to those in the know.
But maybe this will change that. Maybe, in this one utterly listenable package, the uninitiated will be swayed to the gravelly magic of the man’s voice and his incredible musicianship sense of taste. If nothing else, this anthology is a stunning reminder of Lanegan’s unique place in music, even to those of us who have long sat in the dark, sitting shocked and silent and terrified as that low tone of the underground rumbled through our souls.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org