Collaborations with PJ Harvey, icy synthpop and rollicking psychedelia all feature in songs from across the career of a prolific musical great
Mad Season: Long Gone Day (1995)
With a lineup featuring Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, the supergroup Mad Season represented a who’s-who of Seattle’s 90s music scene. It’s only fitting that Mark Lanegan would join the fray. On the group’s 1995 debut Above, he co-wrote the bittersweet duet Long Gone Day with Staley. The pair passed a piece of paper back and forth between them, building the song’s evocative imagery (“Silver spoons affix the crown / The luckless ones are broken”) line by line. Accordingly, Long Gone Day is sombre and driven by acoustic instrumentation, namely Martin’s thrumming percussion, although there’s a distinct smoky jazz lounge vibe thanks to freewheeling saxophone from local legend Skerik. Long Gone Day is also an early, prominent example of the brittle, honeyed side of Lanegan’s voice; his meditative vulnerability stands in sharp contrast with Staley’s more extroverted, anguished yowl.
Screaming Trees: All I Know (1996)
Screaming Trees’ 80s albums for revered punk label SST sounded like grimier REM filtered through hissing 70s hard rock; the band’s later association with grunge was a fluke of geography and luck, after 1992’s thrashing Nearly Lost You landed on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Singles. By 1996’s underrated swansong Dust, Screaming Trees leaned back into their love of psychedelic rock and metal. The results were kinetic on the standout single All I Know: burned-out Beatles jangle warped by ferocious distortion, snarling guitars and pained lyrics describing the push-pull of a destructive relationship. Fittingly, the thematic distress translated into sonic tension: Delicious moments of delicacy emerge from the tornado-like noise in the form of classic pop harmonies and swirling organ and piano from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench. In the end, All I Know devolves into noisy chaos in parallel with the regret cresting in Lanegan’s voice: “Should’ve been, could’ve been mine.”
Mark Lanegan Band: Hit the City ft PJ Harvey (2004)
Lanegan initially launched a solo career while still with Screaming Trees. Among his early works: a 1990 collaboration with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on a cover of the folk standard Where Did You Sleep Last Night and acclaimed releases such as 1994’s Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. However, Lanegan’s solo commercial breakthrough came with 2004’s Bubblegum. A collaborative effort – guests included members of Guns N’ Roses and Queens of the Stone Age – Bubblegum also features his lone UK charting single, Hit the City, a duet with PJ Harvey that peaked at No 76. The pairing is inspired: Harvey and Lanegan are kindred spirits in abrasive distorted blues, with his weathered baritone growl a perfect foil for her keening, desperate voice. Accordingly, the urban landscape to which the duo refer is apocalyptic and desolate, devoid of hope and instead full of self-immolation (“I’m Babylon, burned inside out”) and lost souls.
Queens of the Stone Age: Burn the Witch (2005)
Lanegan joined Queens of the Stone Age during the first half of the 2000s and was an instrumental part of the stoner rock band’s commercial ascent. Among other things, he co-wrote the group’s biggest hit, No One Knows, and contributed lead and backing vocals to other songs from 2000’s Rated R onward. On Lullabies to Paralyze’s stomping Burn the Witch, Lanegan wasn’t necessarily the most prominent voice in the mix; that honour went to guest player Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. But his shadowy, raspy vocals are the menacing id of the arid roadhouse blues song – a creepy role, given that the lyrics are a literal retelling of a witch trial that ends with innocents who “burn to ash and bone” after a mob “cries for blood to twist the tale into firewood”. Lanegan’s occasional whispering line serves as a potent reminder that even the truth won’t necessarily save you – or set you free.
The Gutter Twins: Idle Hands (2008)
Lanegan and Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli had a long creative association throughout the 2000s. The pair linked up frequently in Dulli’s other band Twilight Singers, notably on 2003’s heartbreaking dirge Number Nine, and finally decided to formalise their own partnership as the Gutter Twins several years later. (Yes, the moniker is a self-deprecating reference to the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards union the Glimmer Twins.) The duo only released one album under the name, 2008’s Saturnalia, but the collection’s grinding gothic textures and hypnotic vocals sear like the pain of getting an intricate tattoo. One of the best moments here is the single Idle Hands, a haunted song about what happens when you finally give into darkness and drag someone else along with you in the process. The results, unsurprisingly, aren’t pretty: “There’s nothing I can do / But be the Devil’s plaything, baby / And know that I’ve been used.”
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Snake Song (2010)
Across multiple collaborations starting with 2004’s Time Is Just the Same EP, Lanegan and former Belle and Sebastian member Isobel Campbell established a bewitching vocal dynamic. At times, the pair’s music resembled that of country renegades Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra; at other moments, the contrast between gritty and sweet had far more in common with Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. A twangy cover of Townes van Zandt’s Snake Song found on their last collaboration, 2010’s Hawk, appropriately enough has more bite than others. The song’s lyrics are an extended metaphor comparing the titular reptile to a seductive-but-sneaky partner who isn’t to be trusted. Campbell and Lanegan sing the song’s more piercing lines in unison (“I got poison / I just might bite you”), underscoring the idea that being deceitful can go both ways in a relationship – and people need to watch their back when dealing with someone so devious.
Unkle: Another Night Out ft Mark Lanegan (2010)
After departing the Queens of the Stone Age fold in a full-time capacity, Lanegan dived headfirst into two album collaborations with the dark electro troupe Soulsavers. They weren’t the only electronic act to request his services, however: enter producer James Lavelle, who recruited him to contribute lead vocals to Another Night Out, a standout track on Unkle’s 2010 full-length Where Did the Night Fall. The cinematic song feels like the denouement of a movie, between its dynamic, string-driven swells and pervasive sense of feeling emotionally bereft. Lanegan’s leathery voice chronicles what sounds to be the last moments of a life well lived (“Are those dead diamonds baby? / Or are they stars gone to sleep?”) with the gravitas and resignation of the protagonist from David Bowie’s Space Oddity. It’s one of his most stunning guest vocals, maybe because its clear-eyed take on mortality and the inevitability of endings came from experience.
Mark Lanegan Band: Ode to Sad Disco (2012)
Released in 2012 and produced by Alain Johannes, Blues Funeral is widely considered one of Lanegan’s very best solo albums. Not only does the LP make room for thunderous anthems (the slightly surreal The Gravedigger’s Song) but Blues Funeral contains one of his biggest sonic curveballs, Ode to Sad Disco. Inspired in part by the Pusher movie trilogy from Nicolas Winding Refn – and built up from a synthpop song called Sad Disco by the Danish musician Keli Hlodversson – Ode to Sad Disco is a soft-around-the-edges dance song with gently undulating beats and keyboards. As the title implies, the song honours the ecstatic dancefloor spirit of Hlodversson’s original. However, the vivid and macabre lyrical references (“a mountain of nails burn in your hands”) and references to seeking out redemption in unexpected places scan as a classic Lanegan spin on the familiar, with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in for good measure.
Martina Topley-Bird: Crystalised ft Mark Lanegan and Warpaint (2013)
Although Lanegan possessed one of rock’s most distinctive vocal timbres, he also had a remarkable ability to mould his voice around the contours of anyone with whom he collaborated. That’s a testament to his acumen for working with other musicians – he intuitively understood what a song needed to succeed and when deferring to others made sense. For this funky and faithful 2013 cover of the xx’s Crystalised, recorded in conjunction with the propulsive Los Angeles rock band Warpaint, he and one-time Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird are on equal footing as they engage in a conversation about resolving a tempestuous relationship. The vocal trade-offs are surprisingly even-keeled given the subject matter; at one point, Lanegan calmly notes, “Burn down our home, I won’t leave alive.” But even though the pair unite on certain phrases as the song unfolds (“You just keep on getting closer”) Topley-Bird is always clearly steering the ship.
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood: With Animals (2018)
Lanegan remained prolific in the years preceding his death, contributing guest vocals to songs by the Armed, Cult of Luna and Manic Street Preachers and releasing several solo albums. In 2018, he also released his second collaborative album with London-based Duke Garwood, known for work with Savages and Archie Bronson Outfit. The ascetic lead single (and title track) With Animals illuminated the rich nuances and emotional crevices of Lanegan’s voice. Although he sounded wearier than perhaps he had on recent albums, the strength of his lyrical wordplay – he cycles through calling someone a murderer, a sorcerer, a seraphim, and then a drug to him – emerged as subtle brilliance when paired with a solemn orchestral backdrop. Of course, even on songs where Lanegan sounded fragile, his delivery had quiet strength; discounting his ever-present resilience and steely resolve always tended to backfire.