I'ts Not How Far You Fall It's the Way You Land

(V2; 2007)

By Philip Guppy | 30 November 2007

The finest concert experience I've ever had wasn't really a concert at all -- it was more a matter of course, a weekly gathering that just happened to play out while I was there. One close, wet Sunday morning I took in the service at Al Green's church in Memphis with a friend of mine. Sure, we were tourists doing the tourist thing, necks craned, there to see the local gospel floorshow; neither of us are particularly religious so it was completely on the level of "Is Al gonna be there?" Sadly, the Reverend wasn't in town, but the service we joined in on (and believe me, there wasn't much of a choice but to participate) hit with a breath of passion and fervour that I felt like a charge. It's a little crass to say I enjoyed it as pure entertainment, but I could completely understand how such a display would inspire: white-clad gospel choir, pressed by a screw-tight electric rhythm band and an expectant, simmering congregation. It shanked like an evangelical shiv.

Recently I saw Mark Lanegan sing with Soulsavers in Barcelona, sweating dirty inside a stretched, oppressive marquee, and he broke me with that same vice of belief and penitence. Backed by two thundering gospel reminders and a squall of electricity and howling memory, he made me float, face up, in a sea of dirty nails, a wash of train whistles and distant drinking time. I've always held Lanegan up as being one of the most engaging performers I've ever witnessed, sanctified as he is with a feeling of unimpeachable, heavy reality. Some performers attempt to fit into a mould that will present them as authentic; they want us to believe they are elemental, sacred. If popular legend about his personal troubles is to be believed, Lanegan simply is what he vocalises without any need for explanation, as thrilling and ultimately heartbreaking as that is. At the very least, he's the greatest living proponent at vocalising narcotic pain and salvation that I've heard, be it as a detached storyteller or as an unfortunate participant.

One of the highlights of that Barcelona set was a tremulous, decaying cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy," a clenched reading that felt like a portent, its refrain of "Who is burning? / Effigy" sounding out, resigned, a cold fingered grasp of the wrist. Sadly, it's not among the songs on the new Soulsavers release; instead Lanegan lays out a dawn take on Neil Young's "Through My Sails" and makes a come down elegy of the Stones' "No Expectations." It's telling that Lanegan has a love of classic rock, as the modern take on dependence is too often tied to a flashbulb idea of hipster chic. His approach favours the depiction of slow confusion and weary acid regret found in zombie-eyed Clapton, the Stones and Neil Young. Like Jason Pierce, Lanegan sees the point prick and bloodflower as a gateway to a dialogue with the divine, and while drug use and its depiction will always hold a murky fascination for the naïve teenager in us all, his stage is always set at the end of the line, bathed in the light of a single bulb. This isn't a social terminus, this is kneeling on a rented floor with wet eyes and hands.

At the center of It's Not How Far You Fall It's the Way You Land is Lanegan's voice -- that voice, a monolithic, exquisite instrument that fills every corner with whispered, aching shadow. Like Johnny Cash, Lanegan has been blessed with a tone brought up from the deep well, an ageless brogue drowned in half light and ash. It's a burr that reverberates with wounded experience, defying doubters by way of sheer tidal drama and carnal pain.

Harking back to that Sunday morning in Al Green's church and the feeling of kaleidoscopic illumination, "Revival" marks an important moment in Lanegan's solo catalogue: his suffering pervades every breath, but now this holds the promise that he's open to salvation. Under the spell of a gospel surge the call comes ringing: "Gonna be a revival tonight, lord, let there be a revival." It's a pure moment of white light that washes Lanegan's heart clean of the tar and cinder that immolates it; it's a rapture, an exit. Unfortunately, it's positioned as the opening track, and so it becomes a failed prayer as the same dusty soil begins to fall with every subsequent song.

The general use of language and imagery on the album could be termed as being anachronistic, swamped as it is with black cats and religious iconography, but it survives and affects because it's indelibly ingrained and reeks of experience. The Soulsavers provide a fitting accompaniment throughout, arguably the finest of his solo career, bruising and ripping his vocal with jagged electric jaws or providing a soothing solar balm when the morning creeps. Their steady knot, bound and dipped in both the secular and spiritual, frames Lanegan's vocals with a flaming cord, a lithe crackling leather that is as capable of the soft glide of early light as it is of the stinging, bitter whipcrack of one too many spirits.

This album struck me initially as a marriage of convenience, a way for Lanegan to collaborate and play around with some old favorites, but repeated sittings reveal this to be a remarkably cohesive document that reflects his entire aesthetic, and that's a problematic caveat that must be taken into account. Lanegan's strengths are also his weaknesses: the muscularity of his themes act as a curse as they cause him to be tied to stories he's related many times before. Are his constantly revolving diatribes something that can withstand yet another reading? It must be so, as these themes transcend simple addiction and loss because they become universal fragments, moments common to everyone who has haunted themselves with past mistakes. We accept the formula-led love stories built out of gospel by Motown and Philadelphia, with all their recurring motifs and tropes; Mark Lanegan is simply constructing his monuments on the flipside of that coin. His home is a frantic, bursting heart too, but it's hidden in the alleyways and on the back roads leading away rather than in the clinch and kiss. Both houses burn bright, but one cups a vivid dancing flame and the other a thick black belch of smoke.