One thing has kept Mark Lanegan from the hitting the stratospheric highs and catastrophic lows of his grunge-era peers: the timelessness of his voice. Even in his best-known outfit, Screaming Trees, his single-barrel baritone conjured feral purrs and psychedelic wails, sounding so huge it swallowed everything in sight—often including the music it accompanied. Age has been kind to Lanegan, due in part to the taste and aptness of his post-Trees collaborations, most notably with folk-pop chanteuse Isobel Campbell and fellow grizzled vet Greg Dulli. But with Blues Funeral, the new album from Mark Lanegan Band, the singer has done something few probably expected of him at this point: made a blatant and lackluster attempt to keep up with the times.
At its core, Blues Funeral isn’t a radical departure for Lanegan. It’s easy to imagine the disc’s dozen songs being originally conceived on an acoustic guitar, steeped in the kind of smoky, spectral folk-blues that Lanegan’s solo output has long revolved around. It’s the execution that’s problematic. The fiery forcefulness of opener “The Gravedigger’s Song” is dampened by droning electronics and canned distortion. “If tears were liquor / I’d have drunk myself sick” he croons on “St. Louis Elegy,” but not even that characteristic couplet can make the track’s bland minimalism sound remotely Lanegan-like. It gets worse: “Ode To Sad Disco” sadly does sound like disco, with Lanegan lumbering clumsily across an icy, Moroder-esque beat that he never finds footing on. “Tiny Grain Of Truth” even goes so far as to dabble—embarrassingly—in chill-wave ambience.
A few songs, including the stark “Bleeding Muddy Water” and the swirling, brooding “Deep Black Vanishing Train,” actually benefit from the album’s incessantly overbearing production, in which no note or texture is left digitally unprocessed. But those songs also underscore how much better the whole thing could have been without all the desperately relevant gimmickry. Lanegan’s voice may be timeless, but its versatility has its limits—and Blues Funeral tests those limits just a little too much.