Purgatory is said to be a place between heaven and hell, where the fallen suffer for their sins, hoping they'll avoid the eternal fire and make it to heaven. If such a place exists, and if purgatory has a radio station, "Bubblegum" is in heavy rotation there.
This is the latest solo album from the suddenly productive Mark Lanegan, the Seattle grunge legend who has shed both Seattle and grunge; his body has moved to Los Angeles, and his body of work has moved into Tom Waits-Nick Cave territory. Like "Here Comes That Weird Chill," an EP that Lanegan released last year, "Bubblegum" deals again and again with characters who are working to dig out of — or, in some cases, leap into — deep, dark holes.
The title comes from the song "Bombed," wherein Lanegan whisperingly groans "When I'm bombed/I stretch like bubblegum." It's just one of many references to drugs ("I don't want to go cold turkey"; "There is no morphine / I'm only sleeping") on an album that has a song called "Methamphetamine Blues."
In a phone interview last week, it was suggested to Lanegan that he sings about drugs the way bluesmen like John Lee Hooker ("One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," "Hittin' the Bottle Again") and Lightnin' Hopkins ("Jake Head Boogie": "We got drunk last night man, yes, and the night before") sang about alcohol. The former Screaming Trees singer answered, "My idea was I wanted to make music with the feeling of blues, without being blues — 12-bar blues is outdated. ...
"As far as drugs, I only sing about something I know about — unfortunately, that's been a part of my life."
He knows what he sings about will immediately turn some people off, and he doesn't care. "I like this music," says Lanegan, coming up on his 40th birthday in another month, "and there are some people like me who like this music and find it to be comforting and uplifting."
Lanegan's sixth solo album certainly has been uplifting for some critics.
Spin called his new album "a genuine, slow-burning Leadbelly brutalism." The New York Times described it as "an elegant, hard-bitten disc. ... In a voice so finely frayed it almost sounds gentle, he rasps his heavy-lidded odes to lives spent in pursuit of bliss by the bagful."
Lanegan has lived in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles since he left Seattle in 1996. "I love it," he says of living in L.A. "I love Seattle, and I'll always consider it my home — but I'm one of those people who gets severely affected by the weather."
Raised in Ellensburg, where he was the quarterback at Ellensburg High as a junior ("My senior year I got in some trouble with the law"), he came to Seattle in 1986: "I followed a girl there, foolishly enough," he says, with the typical self-deprecating commentary.
"I lived [in Seattle] for just about 10 years. I started out in Queen Anne, then Green Lake, then First Hill — I was a block away from Harborview [Medical Center] for eight years."
Asked about the best and worst things that happened to him in Seattle, Lanegan shoots back with some Zen philosophy. "I don't think of things happening to me as bad or good, I try to think of everything as a lesson. I thank God for the painful lessons as well as the joyful ones."
Musically, he underwent quite a transformation in his Seattle years, already angling away from heavy rock when he started a short-lived band with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. They recorded three songs, one of which — a cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" — made it onto Lanegan's first solo album.
Cobain famously covered the song on Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged" performance. "We were good friends and both enjoyed a love of a certain kind of music," Lanegan says of Cobain. "We both enjoyed listening to the blues. I'm sure through osmosis there was some shared influences."
Asked if Cobain was leading him toward the blues, or vice versa, Lanegan grew a bit testy: "You'd have to ask him that, and he's not around to ask ... I was the older guy. I met Kurt through him sending me fan letters, so that should tell you something."
Whatever the case, Lanegan continues to work with big-name rockers. He spent much of the past two years recording and touring with the Queens of the Stone Age; "Bubblegum" features appearances by Queens' founder Josh Homme, P.J. Harvey, and Guns 'N' Roses members Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin. He'll have a different backing band when he rolls back into town to play the Showbox at 9 p.m. Thursday ($18).
Lanegan says he would live here, if only the weather was better. "It's the best place in the world, when the sun's shining." He says he visits here "several times a year — some of my best friends in the world are there."
Some who knew him in his darkest days here might not recognize him, and it's not just the shorter hair: "I've changed immensely — thank God."
Seattle is where Lanegan spent most of his turbulent 20s, where he made it in the music business and where he peered into death-dark places, a lost soul.
"... I lost a lot of friends there, and I did things I'm not particularly proud of."
Purgatory, in other words.
• The Blood Brothers have an all-ages show at Neumo's on Tuesday. Later this month, the Seattle punk band will be in Kansas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C., pumping up the new release "Crimes" (V2 Records).
• Reggie Watts, the Maktub singer, helps the Triple Door celebrate its first birthday at 8 tonight ($15, benefit for Youth Care). Mavis Staples, of the great gospel/R&B band the Staple Singers, plays the Triple Door at 8 p.m. tomorrow ($32).
It's quite a weekend for Wild Ginger owner Rick Yoder's music venue, which has filled a niche in Seattle as a tasteful, classy place for people over 30 — but not over music.
Tom Scanlon: email@example.com