The Unforgettable Mark Lanegan

An appreciation of the greatest voice to come out of the grunge era

An illustration of Mark Lanegan
Oliver Munday; The Atlantic

Of the great male voices to come out of the grunge era—Kurt Cobain’s, Layne Staley’s, Chris Cornell’s—the greatest was Mark Lanegan’s. It was simultaneously the fullest and the most evacuated by sorrow, the warmest and the closest to the grave, the strongest and the most self-immolating, the purest and the most polluted, the largest-hearted and the loneliest. It had abjection in it, but also grandeur and glamour, and the kind of timbre that could lead an orchestra. It sounded like he had two sets of lungs and he’d almost worn both of them out. Lanegan, who was born in Ellensburg, Washington, and died yesterday at his home in Killarney in the southwest of Ireland, at the age of 57, was a giant of song: once heard, never forgotten.

Somewhat miscast in his first role, fronting the ’60s-flavored hard-rock bluster of Screaming Trees, slogging around the world on bills with the likes of Pearl Jam or Mudhoney or L7 or the Melvins, Lanegan would come into his own as a restless and relentless solo artist, a lone-wolf dandy with a hunger for collaboration. (He worked with Queens of the Stone Age, Isobel Campbell, Duke Garwood, PJ Harvey—the list goes on.) The Winding Sheet, his 1990 debut, recorded while Screaming Trees was still active, announced the arrival of a major songwriter and a major mood shift, or mood deepening, away from the quiet-to-loud tantrums of grunge and into a more aged American undertow. Cobain guested on a version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” the traditional ballad of romantic doom performed most famously (until Nirvana did it) by Lead Belly. Lanegan’s own songs on the record were beautiful, shattering. “Wild Flowers,” “Museum”: spare, deeply private, transparently simple voice-and-guitar arrangements that float like classics, songs you know immediately will be with you for the rest of your life.

Over the next 30 years he would build an eclectic and thick-spined catalog with remarkably few misfires. Folk, gospel, country, Scott Walker–esque epic, splashings of electronica in his late period … Like Nick Drake, he was a bluesman of his own neurochemistry; like Johnny Cash, he was a rumbling psalmist; and though addiction and depression were his territory, he was fundamentally a torch singer for resurrection. The survivor finds himself back in the same spot, back on the spiral, but just slightly higher than last time: It’s a tiny ascension, a matter of degrees, and it makes all the difference. “Old Swan,” from 2017’s Gargoyle, is nothing more or less than a surging-and-soaring U2-level hymn to the Virgin Mary: “And though my soul is not worth saving / My mistress and my queen / Your spirit is larger than my sin …” Also: You should hear him do “Mack the Knife.”

There’s a Lanegan mood, a Lanegan state, and when you’re in it, only he will do. His doldrums will embrace and and absorb your own; his voice will bring you succor from below. Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Field Songs, Imitations … Don’t go too long without these. His gifts as a lyricist, I believe, are yet to be fully recognized: “Now that the engine driver / Has grown to be a deep-sea diver / And the street has got no end / Better keep your heart strong, little friend …” (“Resurrection Song”). That’s growing up he’s singing about there, baptism in the depths of experience, the initiatory transition from brave little stoker, rushing along, to heavy-treading undersea astronaut. (And then, with the grace of God, you rise up …) Mark Lanegan was a sure and generous guide to these depths. So now that he’s made it through the final transition, let’s give him all we can in the way of honor and thanks.