Revisiting Mark Lanegan’s ‘Scraps at Midnight’ on Its 20th Anniversary
It’s been 20 years since Mark Lanegan released the haunting Scraps at Midnight, a rustic blend of folk and blues recorded in the aftermath of a tumultuous period in the singer’s life. Scraps is one of the last Lanegan records to feature collaborator Mike Johnson, whose spare, soulful instrumentation serves as the perfect backdrop for Lanegan’s distinctive baritone.
Though the record can be just as murky and mournful as the singer’s previous solo efforts, The Winding Sheet (1990) and Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994), there’s a bit more light breaking through the darkness. By the mid-90s, Lanegan’s struggles with drug addiction were tightening their grip, but he managed to clean up his act before recording his third album in Los Angeles while his band, Washington’s Screaming Trees, slowly dissolved after a troubled tour.
Nowadays, Lanegan doesn’t seem to think too highly of Scraps at Midnight beyond the positive experience he had making it, but I always find myself drawn to its sparseness, its quiet loneliness. On “Praying Ground,” Lanegan finds himself broken and worn:
Prayin’ for sleep
Prayin’ for something so easy
If only the moon
Would have left me alone
Lanegan is adept at evoking a world-weary bleakness, but it’s the wounded beauty and glimmers of hope that stick with me. “You got to walk in the morning sun / And got to smile at everyone,” he sings on “Wheels,” quietly defiant to the demons trying to keep his head underwater. At that point in his career, Scraps was the smoothest recording process the newly-clean Lanegan had been a part of, and you could hear it in his voice; he’s much more relaxed on this record, his voice clearer and stronger without losing any of the soul and grit that made Whiskey such a landmark album.
Looking back, it’s fair to see Scraps at Midnight as a transitional record. It feels like the finale of a loose trilogy that began with The Winding Sheet, and there are hints of the more expansive musical landscapes he would soon explore on 1999’s I’ll Take Care of You and 2001’s Field Songs, both of which feature some of his finest work.
Sober for years, Lanegan’s been remarkably prolific over the past decade or so. In addition to acclaimed collaborations with artists like Isobel Campbell and Greg Dulli, Lanegan has guested on records by Queens of the Stone Age, Moby, Neko Case, and god knows how many more. His solo career is still going strong, having released the terrific Gargoyle just last year. He’s also got a new album out later this month with multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood called With Animals, and I’ll be thrilled if it’s even half as good as their previous collaboration, 2013’s Black Pudding. Lanegan’s been around the block and then some, but he always finds new ground to tread, and it doesn’t seem like he plans on slowing down anytime soon.
Here I am, still hangin’ on