At the centre of Blues Funeral is a wonderful tribute/send-up of Goldfrapp entitled Ode To Sad Disco – even going as far as namedropping single Ride A White Horse (Supernature, 2006). The tongue-in-cheek slant aside, this is a smooth six minutes of slick instrumentation – with Lanegan’s usual growl gliding like silk. The song ends with the line “Here I have seen the light” repeated over and over. This idea is augmented later with the equally majestic Harborview Hospital – a semi-autobiographical account of a past life: “All around this place, I was a sad disgrace” and “Are they supposed to be, as sick as you and me?”, he sings as Aldo Struyf’s keyboards shimmer with style.
The best song on Blues Funeral is the more orthodox Riot In My House with superb guitar work from Josh Homme. This is all rock stomp mixed with obscure (even by Lanegan’s standards) lyrics: “…Death’s metal broom…comes sweeping through the evening…” is one example. Words aside, this is excellent throughout and an immediate highlight. Early on, Bleeding Muddy Water is as familiar as it is ambitious with slow, deliberate, repeating lyrics building like a new take on an old prayer. And opener The Gravedigger’s Song starts the album in dark fuzzy industrial mood, driven on by relentless percussion and distant guitars.
Mark Lanegan revisits plenty of old themes and stories throughout Blues Funeral. St. Louis Elegy (featuring fellow Gutter Twin and Afghan Whigs singer/guitarist Greg Dulli) features the early line “If tears were liquor, I’d have drunk myself sick”, only to change it later to “These tears were liquor, and I’ve drunk myself sick”. Subtle but effective. Phantasmagoria Blues (named from the form of theatre in which lanterns project images onto a backlit screen) is powerful and well judged in its exploration of suicide and redemption.
Late on the album fuses psychedelia and folk into the blend. Leviathan is a song in two parts: a slow melody becoming chaotic followed by a brilliant arrangement of multi-layered vocals. This is followed by the 60s influenced Deep Black Vanishing Train – folky guitars and flute with deep vocal production. This delivers Lanegan’s best songwriting, which at times can be awkward and often clumsy, with “Lost on a violent sea, day on endless day… I’ve finally freed myself but it’s hard to break away…”.
Blues Funeral closes with its most ambitious song: the seven-minute swirling instrumentation of Tiny Grain Of Truth. Lanegan manages to create an upbeat dirge with a host of characters from ‘neon priest’ to ‘junkie doctor’. Again the keyboards and guitars are magnificent as it draws the listener into its strange world.
In 2009, Chris Cornell released the risky, but quite brilliant, Scream – an ambitious collaboration with producer Timbaland that brought the Soundgarden and Audioslave vocalist out from his comfort zone. Although not as dramatic, Blues Funeral is a similar concept. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t (Gray Goes Black and Quiver Syndrome the only weak moments) but it succeeds in proving that Mark Lanegan is not as one-dimensional as he could be; now a musician with multiple personalities and personas – part wandering drifter, part love-struck fugitive, part reformed preacher. Blue Funeral proves that risk brings reward and within the big drums, electronic flourishes and stirring production, the Blues lives on.