The death at 57 of the Screaming Trees frontman and serial collaborator deprives music of a voice that filled ears with warmth and heart
The news of Mark Lanegan‘s passing is, his mere 57 years of age notwithstanding, perhaps not surprising, considering his recent horrendous experience with covid, or his hard living lifestyle over the years. It is, however, a desperate loss, to his family and to the music world at large.
Over the years, Lanegan’s voice has lent its timbre to a host of different styles of music. As hired hand, if you wanted someone with a tobacco and whisky stained voice to give your song the feel of a backroom bar in the early hours of the morning, then Lanegan was the go-to guy. Those who have heard Soulsavers‘ Revival or his work with Humanist will have instantly picked up on those dark and wonderful tones. His was a voice like no other.
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Lanegan was a pioneer. The grunge scene from which his band Screaming Trees emerged had a number of singular voices, and sadly many of them are not making music now. Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood, Chris Cornell and Layne Stayley all had a unique approach that marked them out as something “other”. Lanegan’s voice was their equal; wonderful, and instantly recognisable. His work with Screaming Trees gave the outfit and him mainstream attention, most notably with I Nearly Lost You, which featured on the soundtrack of the film Singles. Lanegan noted had been written as a single and was “corny”, but it moved the band into an arena where their albums and his voice got the recognition they deserved.
Alongside his band’s work, Lanegan had a prolific solo career. His first album, The Winding Sheet (1990), contained two songs featuring Kurt Cobain (Down In The Dark and a cover of Leadbelly‘s Where Did You Sleep Last Night?). In the wake of Nirvana‘s success, both Screaming Trees and Lanegan’s solo career started to feel the gaze of wider attention. His second solo album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost (1994) featured yet more associates of the alternative scene (Tad Doyle and J Mascis) and was far more balanced and interesting than his debut.
It’s fair to say that Lanegan’s life hadn’t always been easy, and his dalliances with drugs are well documented. In fact, most of Lanegan’s life is well documented, because his autobiographies Sing Backwards And Weep and Devil In A Coma are filled with incredible and terrible tales. There are far too many close scrapes to go into, and whilst that side of his life is of importance, it’s his work as a musician that truly leaves its mark.
After a spell in rehab, Lanegan found himself with Queens Of The Stone Age and provided vocals for two of their most memorable albums, Rated R and Songs For The Deaf. He also teamed up with Afghan Whigs‘ Greg Dulli for The Twilight Singers (Blackberry Belle, 2003) and The Gutter Twins albums. Somehow he also found time to put out a solo album, Bubblegum, which featured PJ Harvey, Izzy Stradlin and many more besides, and then went on to record a series of albums with former Belle and Sebastian member Isobel Campbell and a couple with London’s Duke Garwood. To say that he was prolific is something of an understatement.
Whilst certain aspects of his life – drug addiction, his battle with covid that left him in a coma – will no doubt be held up for scrutiny, it is important to remember the reason that Lanegan’s passing hits the music world so hard. He did not sound like anybody else. If you heard Mark Lanegan even for a second, you knew it was him. Despite all the projects, the albums, and the multitude of songs, that voice never got boring. If you want to find out about the other side of his life, read his memoirs – Lanegan was a fine wordsmith and storyteller. But his lasting impact will always live on in a voice that simply filled your ears with warmth and heart that very few possess.