You know the record you want but you can’t find it anywhere. It’s got the heavy-bottomed primordial wallop of metal aligned to the warm acidic undertow of The Byrds, cemented by an ingrained love of soul and country and fronted by Leonard Cohen singing the words of Johnny Cash under the guise of a stadium rock god. And Hendrix on lead guitar. So, we’re looking at Crosby, Stills & Cash jamming with Black Sabbath and a psychopath on lead vocals? Plus… Jimi Hendrix?! The record you want hasn’t been made yet, pal.
It has now. After two years’ worth of aborted studio sessions and dark whispers of even darker anti-social behaviour comes the seventh album by the Screaming Trees, and as close to yer actual classic rock record as we’re liable to encounter for the foreseeable future.
‘Dust’ teems with all the pseudo-mystical frills punk taught us to abhor – sitars, tablas, visions of a, “holy man crying with the mother Mary” – then restores these conceits to a state of enriched purity. Such is the total empathy these war-torn Seattle scene veterans have for their craft. In producer George Drakoulias, the Screaming Trees found a man capable of both indulging and channelling their destructive urges into this unrepentantly lavish tapestry. It’s rock, kids, with all the grandiose ambition we should routinely demand but so rarely gets delivered.
It is in the troubled croon of Mark Lanegan that the Screaming Trees’ spirit lies. Remember that Kurt Cobain first sang Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ while contributing to Lanegan’s first solo album, and the depths of existential trauma plumbed here might come as less of a shock. The sublimely harmonised roll of ‘All I Know’ shrouds a junkie’s cry for help: “Bite the thorn that pierced the skin/ Come back down to earth again/ The cold is creeping deep inside/ Disconnect the telephone line/ Gotta get away, gotta get away… Before the Lord calls me to stay.”
‘Witness’ weighs in with smokestack riffage and a pitiless vocal barb: “It’s taken everything I got and it’s hung me on a line/ Water rising up over me and I think I’m gonna die…”
A lapsed southern Baptist, Lanegan routinely deals in sin and redemption. Love is tough. Sleep, when it comes, is a mixed blessing: “On Monday morning you can’t wake up/ Still dreaming of what could have been,” he confides on ‘Sworn And Broken’, a pearl that threatens to outshine all-comers… until the epic balm of ‘Gospel Plow’ beckons ‘Dust’ to some form of peaceful conclusion.
‘Grunge’ was always too puny a term to define even the formative Screaming Trees, but ten years up and they threaten to consign the genre’s half-baked pretenders to the wrecking yard of history. ‘Dust’ is Seattle’s saving grace; the sound of rock’n’roll in Heaven.