Dying is frequently painful, usually ugly and invariably undignified. Craving a picturesque death is one of the most benighted consequences of romanticism, from Goethe to rock’n’roll. Think of your favourite stylishly early exits – Byron, Dylan Thomas, Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis, maybe – green with fever, mottled yellow with liver failure, blue with heroin, black-tongued from asphyxia. Chatterton or Ophelia, who looked so fetching dead on canvas, would have perished hideously twisted or bloated as a sack full of gas. There are no good-looking corpses.
Art which exalts death and decay says nothing about our lives. It speaks to our delusions, our image of how we would like to go. Because we cannot truly imagine our own deaths, we half-believe that, having struck the pose, we will overhear the sighs and see the swooning admiration provoked by our passing. Death is the ultimate in beautiful loserdom, and rock music is the biggest beautiful loser cult – and *ergo* death cult – of all.
Which is where Screaming Trees come in. Drink, desolation and self-destruction, that unholy trinity, are presented here intact and shining. The twilights of body and soul have rarely been twinned so enticingly. The title is choice: “Dust”. It surpasses even the last one, “Sweet Oblivion”. What could come after dust?
As an indulgent pleasure, “Dust” ranks with reading your own obituary. Ah, the sweep and the dignity of it, a funeral cortege on roads paved with felt. Mark Lanegan’s songs give failure and loss a depth and stature they sorely lack in life. They are the antithesis of Eddie Vedder’s declamatory gurning. For the duration of a Lanegan song, every morose, introspective drunk can be brooding and heroically taciturn. If you are unlucky in love, if you feel the chill hand of age on your shoulder, if your existence sometimes strikes you as a desperate and pointless regress into the earth whence you came – then you’re a self-pitying mess, much like everyone else, and you need to get out more. But Lanegan has refined this angst to a pitch of such irresistible solemnity that it makes you feel important, in a cosmically insignificant kind of way.
It sounds perfect, too. It sounds like distilled thunder. It sounds as if the elements have been harnessed – for *you*, in service of *your* anomie – and fed through a mixing desk. It’s a silken, bariton rumble, a cruise-controlled cyclone. Frankly, it’s a marvel. Screaming Trees may be the only Byrds-inspired band to have shunned jangle and whimsy in favour of the warm, eerie undertow and hot, hectic raga guitars. Plus, one look at them and you have to suspect they’d find that other stuff too, well, *faggoty*.
“Halo Of Ashes”. “Dying Days”. “Sworn And Broken”. “Dime Western”. (Yes! Exactly.) Here, my friends, is a record good enough to live those titles down. All is sorrow. All is dust. It’s not, of course, but isn’t it a beautiful thought?