Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020
These are songs of melancholy for a deep, dark winter. On Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020, Mark Lanegan reminds us of all the ways music can, so radiantly, break our hearts.
Did I ever think I’d be eager to review a Christmas album? No, honestly no. But this isn’t really a Christmas album. Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020 has some of the most haunting and exquisite sounds I’ve ever heard. I’m going to be listening to this long after the holiday season has passed and well into the darker days of winter. Mark Lanegan shouldn’t need any introduction, but you likely know him from Screaming Trees, or more recently after reading his acclaimed memoir Sing Backwards and Weep (a White Rabbit Books publication and Rough Trade’s Book of the Year 2020). Now back to the Christmas record.
If you went to a Mark Lanegan show in 2012, you might have bought a copy of Dark Mark Does Christmas 2012. The album was only available to those who went to a live gig. That version of the album contained six tracks of traditional Christmas songs and some incredible covers, including Lanegan’s take on Roky Erickson’s Burn The Flames. The album is great, and anyone who didn’t get a copy back in 2012 should fear they’re missing out (they are). But it’s the songs he adds to the 2020 release that truly bring me to my knees. The new release adds four additional tracks, including two dazzling original songs and two Christmas covers that leave me breathless with sorrow and reverence.
Have you had a conversation with me since I heard Lanegan’s cover of In The Bleak Midwinter? You might already know just how moving I find his version. But first, a little bit of background on this song: the lyrics come from a Christina Rossetti poem first published in 1872 and later set to sound by Gustav Holst in 1906. Since then, musicians across genres have covered it as a holiday carol, ranging from versions that feel pious and pedantic to those that are devastatingly beautiful. Bert Jansch’s 1975 version – before I heard Mark Lanegan’s – was always my favorite of them all. And then, reader, less than two weeks ago, I heard Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020 and haven’t been the same since. His alteration of the original arrangement envelops the listener in an atmosphere that’s marked by an unlikely combination of more warmth and sorrow than I thought was possible in a song. Lanegan’s gravelly voice is drenched in melancholy, almost as if weeping. His sadness becomes luminous and resplendent.
Then there’s his follow-up cover of Christmas Eve Can Kill You, written by Dennis Linde (who notably wrote Elvis Presley’s Burning Love) and originally performed by the Everly Brothers. I’d never been crazy about this song despite its deeply plaintive lyrics – the sound somehow encapsulates everything I want to forget that happened musically in certain parts of the 1970s. (But I should say that those lyrics, unlike the Everly Brothers’ song, feel prescient, as if written for a world in mourning.) Other artists have since covered it, and I was a little surprised to see the track listing on Dark Mark. Then I listened. It retains some of the organ notes that initially marked the song but turns them into pulsing daggers, overlaid by Lanegan’s affecting vocals. When Lanegan sings Christmas Eve Can Kill You, it’s prepossessing, magnetic. Mark Lanegan, you are breaking my heart.
Through In The Bleak Midwinter and Christmas Eve Can Kill You, we get a sense of how Lanegan’s melancholy becomes embedded in his work. I’m reminded of one of the last lines of Sing Backwards and Weep: “Some of the ghosts of my old life still haunted me.”
Those two cover songs bookend Lanegan’s original Death Drums Along the River, which I think you’ll really like. The title mirrors a 1960s film of the same name (a tale of British colonial violence on the African continent), yet the riotous drum synth distinctly places the track in a more present time and place. In sound alone, Death Drums could be your new favorite holiday dance party tune. The sonic resonances belie the bleakness of the lyrics, as you might have guessed, as Lanegan sings lines like “to my memories I had been a slave.” But truly, when the pandemic is behind us, this is a song to dance to.
And finally, let me just say: if anyone was made to cover Roky Erickson’s Burn The Flames, it was Mark Lanegan.
You might be able to snag a copy of the album from Rough Trade if you hurry.