Sweet Oblivion and Whiskey for the Holy Ghost — Remembering Mark Lanegan

Sweet Oblivion and Whiskey for the Holy Ghost — Remembering Mark Lanegan

By Zac Johnson

Feb. 23, 2022

So much has been written about the initially efflorescent and eventually overblown Seattle scene of the early '90s that it feels like a weary tale at this point. There were muscular bands like Soundgarden and Tad, shyly pop-influenced bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and darkly unsettling bands like Alice in Chains and Melvins, but even with those bands' guitar-smashing theatrics and hair-curtain glower, no band felt as truly dangerous as Screaming Trees. Part of the danger came from the juggernaut performances by massive brothers Van and Gary Lee Conner who somersaulted and flailed onstage, throwing their violent energy at the songs and at each other (raging in a way that only siblings can), but the real haunt came from vocalist Mark Lanegan.

As is detailed in his memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, Lanegan grew up in a gruelingly dysfunctional home and quickly fell into liquor and drugs as a method of escape. He and the Conner boys formed Screaming Trees after pulling Lanegan from behind the drum kit and pushing him rather reluctantly to the front of the stage. Even in their earliest recordings such as 1986's Clairvoyance and Even If and Especially When, Lanegan's whiskey-and-cigarettes voice was raw and forceful, but belied a sense of haunted beauty. Much of Screaming Trees' music was influenced by the psychedelic underground music of the sixties, in direct opposition to their eventual compatriots' embrace of Sabbath/Stooges stomp and wail. Somehow this blend of swirling guitar effects and dark carnival atmospherics combined a brooding menace with a sense of honest clarity within the darkness.

As the Seattle sound was "discovered," Screaming Trees had been a respected working band releasing albums on Velvetone and SST for half a decade. The raw sound of their early albums was slowly polished until their second album on Epic, the underrated masterwork Sweet Oblivion, brought them national attention (due in no small part to their song "Nearly Lost You" being one of the many highlights on the Singles soundtrack). Their muscular and earnest songwriting came to a peak with songs like the album's opener "Shadow of the Season," the "When the Levee Breaks" dirge of "More or Less" and the psych-tinged "Butterfly." A quiet diversion from the buzzing guitars was the acoustic-based "Dollar Bill," a heartbroken, bar-at-closing-time hymn that builds slowly, urged on by Lanegan's plaintive howl.

After the subsequent (and violent) yearlong tour to support the record, the band chose to go on a long hiatus which led to Lanegan focusing on his solo work and recording the second of many truly excellent records on his own. The quiet introspection of Lanegan's solo debut and "Dollar Bill" bled over strongly into these recordings, focusing less on walls of guitars and offering more introspective and subtle orchestration to support his yearning story-songs. AllMusic's Mark Deming nailed it when he pointed out:
"While The Winding Sheet often sounded inspired but tentative, like the solo project from a member of an established band, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost speaks with a quiet but steely confidence of an artist emerging with his own distinct vision. The songs are more literate and better realized than on the debut, the arrangements are subtle and supportive (often eschewing electric guitars for keyboards and acoustic instruments), and Lanegan's voice, bathed in bourbon and nicotine, transforms the deep sorrow of the country blues (a clear inspiration for this music) into something new, compelling, and entirely his own."

Screaming Trees reunited for one more album but Lanegan spent the majority of his energies continuing to record solo albums and working with Josh Homme as a frequent collaborator on Queens of the Stone Age albums, pairing with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, and recording an unexpectedly charming series of duets with Belle and Sebastian's Isobel Campbell.

Throughout his career, Lanegan fought the demons of addiction, at one point trying to cure his alcoholism by using heroin and obtaining an infection in his arm that almost required amputation. His memoir details truly harrowing stories of trying to score in back alleys while on European tours, and situation after situation where it was a miracle he made it out alive. He established true friendships with Kurt Cobain (who called Lanegan repeatedly on the day of his suicide), Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff (who overdosed two months after Cobain died), and Layne Staley from Alice in Chains (whom Lanegan toured with and recorded with on the darkly beautiful Mad Season album), all of whom died too soon. Lanegan finally got sober within the last decade of his life, and his clarity led to an increase in output, both in his music and in his writing.

Somehow surviving 57 years, Mark Lanegan died in early 2022. Looking back on his decades of output, he left behind a moody and gothic body of work, from psych-revival through heavy melodic rock and finally as a gruff troubadour whose songs haunt the corners of barrooms and dim hollars with only the occasional ray of sunlight breaking through the dark.

AllMusic spoke with Mark Lanegan in 2020. The interview can be found here.