In 2002, Mark Lanegan was looking to make some changes in how he approached his music – the Screaming Trees had finally collapsed at the end of the '90s, he'd found a new fan base as a frequent guest vocalist with Queens of the Stone Age, and the spare, blues-leaning solo efforts Lanegan cut for Sub Pop were no longer side projects but the first chapters of a new career. As Lanegan was strategizing his next move, he went to Houston, Texas and in five days recorded a dozen songs with a handful of talented local musicians, including guitarist Ian Moore and longtime Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael on harmonica, with Justice Records founder Randall Jamail as producer. While the sessions were meant to be demos for a stack of songs Lanegan had written for Jamail's publishing house, the finished product sounded good enough to be an album, and in 2015 Lanegan finally released the material under the title Houston: Publishing Demos 2002. The jolly irony is that while these are supposed to be demos, in many respects the performances sound more polished and "commercial" than most of Lanegan's early solo efforts, capturing a laid-back but buoyant mood that's informed by country and blues as much as rock, and Lanegan seems comfortable singing with the group, rather than simply laying his vocals over the top.
Those who liked the moodier, more atmospheric material on the last Mark Lanegan Band offering, 2004's Bubblegum, will find much to enjoy on Blues Funeral – an album that has little to do with blues as a musical form. Lanegan has been a busy man since Bubblegum. In the nearly eight ensuing years, he's issued three records with Isobel Campbell, joined Greg Dulli in the Gutter Twins, guested on albums by the Twilight Singers and UNKLE, and was the lead vocalist on most of the last two Soulsavers offerings. Produced by Eleven guitarist Alain Johannes (who also fulfills that role here as well as playing bass, keyboards, and percussion), Blues Funeral finds Lanegan in a musically ambitious place. His voice is deeper, smokier, but more restrained, even on the few straight-up rockers. The grain in his voice is more pronounced, offering a sense of coiled menace on each track, one that is ready at all points to explode the musical confines these songs erect, and to overwhelm them all. To his credit, he never does. While the album is sequenced seamlessly, with varying textures and dynamics, there are standouts.
Mark Lanegan's first solo album, 1990's The Winding Sheet, was a darker, quieter, and more emotionally troubling affair than what fans were accustomed to from his work as lead singer with the Screaming Trees. The follow-up album, 1994 's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, used The Winding Sheet's sound and style as a starting point, with Lanegan and producer/instrumentalist Mike Johnson constructing resonant but low-key instrumental backdrops for the singer's tales of heartbreak, alcohol, and dashed hopes. While The Winding Sheet often sounded inspired but tentative, like the solo project from a member of an established band, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost speaks with a quiet but steely confidence of an artist emerging with his own distinct vision. The songs are more literate and better realized than on the debut, the arrangements are subtle and supportive (often eschewing electric guitars for keyboards and acoustic instruments), and Lanegan's voice, bathed in bourbon and nicotine, transforms the deep sorrow of the country blues (a clear inspiration for this music) into something new, compelling, and entirely his own. Whiskey for the Holy Ghost made it clear that Mark Lanegan had truly arrived as a solo artist, and it ranks alongside American Music Club's Everclear as one of the best "dark night of the soul" albums of the 1990s.