Listen to the voice
There's a moment on Mark Lanegan's 1999 album I'll Take Care Of You, on the Fred Neil cover, where the singer's voice cracks...
It sounds like that switch in my head that I always wish I could flip to OFF, that only goes to OFF after a certain measure of Maker's Mark or Stoli or Southern Comfort; that never switches to OFF nowadays because I don't like the person I turn into when I'm drunk anymore.
It's difficult to listen to, this crack in Mark's voice. It shouldn't be allowed that someone should sound so weary and handsome and male... and then he starts singing the old soul standard 'Consider Me,' and it sounds like the words are aimed directly at a girl I shared an apartment with in Seattle, and it sounds like the most painful memory I've ever shut out and had thrust back into my face, and that's... and that's where fancy words break down.
Listen to the voice.
The man sings, the bittersweet tang of lost friends affecting every cracked, broken word. In his voice, you can hear the sound of immigrants' battles, cars skidding into snow banks, the taste of one more glass of whiskey at four am. In his voice, you can taste the acrid scent of sadness. In its fragility, you can hear echoes of gospel traditions and the Holy Spirit (or what I understand by that ridiculous concept) and friendship and uncertainty and all those dimmed red lights that never disappear, even years after. In his voice, you can taste solace and paranoia and hope and lust and an overwhelming knowing certainty that life only gets more and more beautiful as you become older, that the sweetest part of death is oblivion. The man sings, and that's all that matters.
The notes are slow, gentle, but never without feeling. You almost wish they could be without feeling, that they could numb this sensation of memory, that they could serve as some substitute for this harsh glow they call reality. Listen closely to Ray Charles' classic celebratory interpretation of 'What'd I Say.' His tone is forceful, masculine and still relaxed. There's no need for shouting here. That's almost precisely how Lanegan Sings, and his songs are equally as jubilant, if more reflective. There's a moment on Lanegan's 1999 album I'll Take Care Of You, on the OV Wright cover, where Mark's voice cracks...
I don't want much from music. Indeed, I rarely want anything from it; mostly, I just want it to go the hell away and leave me in silence, in my dreams, to drift and linger and slip into the sweetest caress that only pure silence can offer. If I want music, I will play the piano and croon gently, and dream of American bars and friends and musicians. If I want music late at night, I am plenty able to supply my own, thank you. Who do I like to hear when the world has gone away? No one. Myself. Anyone quiet, and soulful. Anyone who can communicate their own essence without too many instruments or percussion or production intruding. I'm talking artists like the minimal Welsh trio Young Marble Giants (just a click track and a pure girl's voice) or present-day English singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams (her music recalls the Cowboy Junkies' solitary light bulb hanging from a church ceiling) or Nina Simone, of course. I want music that feels, music that dares to reveal. Mark's voice fills me with the same awe as my own. It's personal, it is beautiful, and it is always trying to make sense of experience and often doesn't. I am willing to admit that my voice reaches only myself and a few others, while Mark's voice reaches many, many more. That's the difference between genius and honesty.
There's a warmth, an empathy to the words Mark chooses to sing that few artists ever attain. There's an understanding that exists between him and the past that continues a tradition of storytelling few in this country even understand, that will continue to resonate long after the Northwest has been forgotten. I am unashamedly in love with American folklore, and this is why I love to listen to Mark Lanegan late at night long after the world has gone away and it seems the only other fix is death.
© Everett True 2001