Fifteen years ago most people who knew Mark Lanegan wouldn't have guessed he'd still be alive, never mind recording six solo albums and touring with a high-profile hard-rock act like Queens of the Stone Age. The former lead singer of the lysergically-challenged Screaming Trees built a reputation for substance abuse that ranked him as a true heavyweight. His albums came slowly; his tours were short and infrequent. Somewhere in the mid-'90s, he pulled it together without sacrificing a thing. All of his solo albums have their transcendent moments. But none have the firepower that backs up his latest, Bubblegum. With the help of a revolving cast including members of Queens, former Afghan Whig-current Twilight Singer Greg Dulli, Izzy and Duff from Guns n' Roses/Velvet Revolver and PJ Harvey Lanegan's delivered his most intense, musically varied album to date.
Lanegan is an old-school rocker. He consults with the blues, zeroing in on the form's deep emotional commitment without submitting to its limits. The 12-bar structure crumbles here. Instead, he channels rock's serious side, from the spiritual quests of Tim Buckley to the dark shadows haunting Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, from the apocalyptic Biblical monotone of Leonard Cohen to the Hollywood decadence underlining Lee Hazlewood. Lanegan never shies from the theater of the moment as long as the supporting riff is strong. In an age ruled by irony, Lanegan growls as serious and threatening as the big, bad wolf. Some might call it pretentious, but the motherfucker can sing.
At 15 cuts in nearly 50 minutes, Bubblegum is not an overly long album by today's standards, yet it has the feel of an epic. It begins quietly with "When Your Number Isn't Up." A gentle piano interlude yields to staggered drumbeats, an overwhelming bass and solid organ notes. Lanegan emerges from the darkness, setting the funereal tone with a voice as deep as Moses. "What you got coming is hard to swallow," he offers as the stone tablets break in his hands. "Hit the City" kicks things into gear with PJ Harvey harmonizing as distorted guitars and vocals submit to the distorted bass-heavy mix. The bass is key. It matches Lanegan's own vocal range and has the unusual effect of slowing things down even as it's speeding them up.
The entire album flows seamlessly. Songs drift past making little first impression only to pop forth on repeated listens, riffs and vocal lines emerging as survivors in a torrent of ideas. "Strange Religion," "Come to Me" and "Morning Glory Wine" shimmer in the moonlit mix. Lanegan's the finest blues singer alive and he doesn't even need to sing the blues to prove it.