8. Screaming Trees, Invisible Lantern
When I was flipping through albums on the new releases shelf in my college radio station twenty-six years ago, the potential longevity of the artists before me was hardly at the forefront of my mind. If at that point I cast backward the same span of time, for example, Elvis Presley was still the dominant artist, and the likes of Joey Dee and the Starliters and Bobby Vinton were topping the charts. In short, it seemed like ancient history in the curation of the music wing in the pop culture museum. Even if I did consider who had staying power among those who delivered favored releases that fall, I highly doubt I would have pointed to Screaming Trees, even though I thought the album in question, Invisible Lantern, was first-rate. The band may have only made it another decade or so, but their frontman, Mark Lanegan, arguably stands with only Tom Waits as a performer still creating new work that the critics feel the need to grapple with. Yes, there are other groups and performers that are still going concerns and fully capable of causing ripples within the music press, but Lanegan gets his attention not with stunts or controversy but with considerations of his enduring artistry.
Invisible Lantern was the third full-length from Screaming Trees. Like their prior effort, Even If and Especially When, it was on SST Records, guaranteeing it a certain amount of attention and even reverence from those college radio programmers who saw Greg Ginn’s Southern California label as a dependable arbiter of all that was cool and tough but also smartly accessible within the evolving punk scene. On Invisible Lantern, Screaming Trees absolutely has a punk edge, but like a lot of their label-mates, they were applying it to slightly different forms of music. Listening to the album now, it’s striking how steeped it in the sort of sturdy, pummeling songcraft that was the hallmark of bands with a permanent place on classic rock radio playlists. The fuzzy guitar riff of album opener “Ivy” calls back to any one of the dozens of garage rock bands that emerged in the late nineteen-sixties, and “Lines & Circles” melds a version of the Kinks’ bruising nihilism (“They’re going places I’ve never been/ Saying words I’ve never said/ Thoughts of logic at once stopped dead/ Moving up all around my head”) with the pile driving, glossed-out metal of the Cult. Little tinges of psychedelia crop up here and there (as on “She Knows”), and overall there’s a sense that the strongest songs belong pressed onto musty old 45s (“Direction of the Sun”).
Perhaps predictably, Lanegan is the band’s not-so-secret weapon. His deep, emotive baritone deliver comes across with a woozy sort of swagger, like a crooner emerging from a ill-fated pilgrimage across the tundra, weary but still singing. That’s heard best on the songs that find the band slowing down a bit, such as the Doors-styled grandiosity of “Grey Diamond Desert” (“I never thought the night would find me here/ Black raindrops washed away with drunken tears”) or the swinging groove of the title cut. His voice reverberates with the same sort of inherent theatricality that sustains Nick Cave. Like the Australian iconoclast, Lanegan has long understood how to tilt his songs to that strength. Given the added perspective of a bevy of other Lanegan releases in the intervening years, I can hear the successful employment of that strategy on Invisible Lantern. Back then, I’m pretty sure I mostly played the album because I thought it kicked ass (that was the common denominator description of all SST releases). Now I hear a more complex statement of intent, one that makes it clear exactly why Lanegan has lasted.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time