We have a fascination with the dark side. We cheer for the hero, but we love the villain. We want Luke Skywalker to win, but we think Darth Vader is more interesting. Who looks like they are having more fun: Clarice or Hannibal? It’s where we get to see the fun side of drugs, depravity, hedonism, cruelty, sexuality, and menace. The dark side is a place most of us will only experience as spectators. There is a rush from the voyeuristic thrill of movies and villains. Enter Mark Lanegan Band’s Bubblegum.
Bubblegum draws its title from the song “Bombed” (“When I’m bombed, I stretch like bubblegum…”), and it is filled with addiction references, failed relationships, and despair. What it is not is an album that sounds like his previous solo outings. Where they were mostly acoustic and stripped down, Bubblegum is a heavier, denser album. Lanegan collaborated with Queens of the Stone Age on their Songs for the Deaf album between the release of Field Songs and Bubblegum, and this seems to have inspired him to reach back to his days as the lead singer of Screaming Trees.
1. When Your Number Isn’t Up – This one would have felt right at home on I’ll Take Care of You. It’s a song that Johnny Cash would have recorded with Rick Rubin had he lived just a little bit longer. Haunting organs and murky synthesizers are the somber backdrop for a creepy Lanegan lyric delivered in his patented low growl.
2. Hit The City – The first of two duets with PJ Harvey. Any song that opens with a line like, “Dark descends through the promised land” is going to be a good one. Fuzzy bass and guitars are anchored by a cool groove- great duet.
3. Wedding Dress – This sexy, twisted song has nice backing vocals (I think it’s his ex-wife singing on this one. She shows up a lot throughout the album). One review of the album thinks this is a murder ballad. I’m not sure I get that from the lyric, but there is something sinister. “The end may be soon so we better rent a room so you can love me…”
4. Methamphetamine Blues – This is a song that was released as part of an EP last year. Clanking and hissing percussion give this song an almost industrial feel.
5. One Hundred Days – One of the most straight-ahead, listener-friendly songs on the album and yet there is a drug reference in the chorus (“there is no morphine, I’m only sleeping”). The wistful vocals lighten the darkness just slightly, and ‘One Hundred Days’ feels almost like a respite from the darkness of the album.
6. Bombed – One of the simplest, saddest, shortest songs ever recorded (1:09). The darkness in “Methamphetamine Blues” jumps out and assaults you, the darkness in “One Hundred Days” and “Bombed” is much more sinister enveloping the listener in a warm haze. The song reads almost like an apology for a failed relationship and the backing vocals of his ex-wife gives the track an air of understanding and resignation. A lot to pack into a 0:69 second package.
7. Strange Religion – Duff and Izzy (late of Guns ‘N’ Roses) make guest appearances on this song, and it fits in the same vein of the previous two songs.
8. Sideways in Reverse – The gentleness of the past three songs is gone. “Sideways in Reverse” is a straight ahead, two-chord rocker. One reviewer thinks this song is about cunnilingus… maybe (“going down, going down, people give me your love”)
9. Come to Me – The second (and better) duet with PJ Harvey. There is what a ballad sounds like when grownups write and sing it and all the syrup and pre-production nonsense are removed. (“Time takes a while to break you/And now only fire can wake you”).
10. Little Willie John – “Little Willie John” is disposable without sounding like filler. This is one that could have been replaced by one of the better songs from the rarities EP that spawned “Methamphetamine Blues). The lead vocal is as good as any on the album and it is that vocal that kees “Little Willie John” from dragging the album down.
11. Can’t Come Down – A defiant lyric with a very different vocal style and freak-out electronic percussion. Tracks 11-14 were recorded with Alain Johannes (produced for Live and Chris Cornell, was in the band Eleven) and they comprise their own min-suite toward the end of the album.
12. Morning Glory Wine – One gets the feeling from listening to early Screaming Trees work that Lanegan is a reluctant balladeer. “Morning Glory Wine” finds him sounding more comfortable in the role.
13. Head – The most obvious Screaming Trees song Lanegan has recorded in a long time (he should sue himself for lifting the riff to “All I Know” from Dust.
14. Driving Death Valley Blues – The B-side and cousin to the single “Sideways in Reverse” (“I don’t want to go cold turkey”)
15. Out of Nowhere – “As it begins, so to it ends/ crawls to a stop and then starts again” is a perfect line for the last song on an album. “Out of Nowhere” has a slight retro, 70’s classic rock vibe and it closes Bubblegum on a winning note.
Rating: 4.5 stars.