Review Summary: A emotional departure from his normal line of work, this isn't just for fans of grunge.
Mark Lanegan has been a staple of grunge music even before the movement had a name. With the leader of the Screaming Trees, he established himself as one of the premier songwriters of the scene. They never broke nationally like their peers did around them, but they continued to churn out influential and critically acclaimed albums. When grunge died in the mid 90's, Screaming Trees were one of the many victims. However, Mark has continued to literally make a name for him with over seven solo albums, not to mention his guest spots where he gained a new audience with Queens of the Stone Age. The Winding Sheet is his first solo album, before grunge was even a factor in popular music.
The main difference between Screaming Trees and his solo career are the acoustic guitars. They make up the primary source of melody, even though there are very few hooks. He still utilizes electric guitars, but they are used so sparingly, it doesn’t take away from the campfire circle feel. Together, the guitars paint a picture of a desolate and trodden, yet golden background. “Mockingbirds” has a great use of both features, and even has room for a bit of piano. Surprisingly, the softest thing on the album might be the drumming. Rarely featuring a snare, or even a hi-hat, he opts for low floor toms, with the occasional crash. To say it sounds tribal is inaccurate, but the drums are never the attraction of anything on the album. They’re there not even so much to keep the beat, but set the mood.
Mark’s voice brings up another weary loner: Tom Waits. The only difference is he’s not purposefully weird. Mark is not an incredibly gifted singer, but with his knack for creating dark imagery through his lyrics, his vocals can only assist. You might even end up liking the sound of his voice as much as his lyrics. The urgency in his tired voice is something of a fallacy, but Lanegan is one of a disappearing few that can tell a life story with the sound of his singing. This record had to have been a home recording. It's intimate enough to make you feel like he's speaking directly to you. The entire record feels crude and soft, which gives it's familiar, fuzzy feeling. It sounds like a dark, gray rainy afternoon in the Evergreen Mountains of the Northwest. Everything about it feels like a long, dumb day. To call it deliberate would be incorrect. This is what Mark Lanegan feels, and what he knows.
If this record had any flaws, it's the second half fails a little. The cover of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" slows down the album. I'm sure I'm biased, being a fan of Nirvana's cover, but it feels like he can't express the words if he didn't write them. "Juarez" feels out of place, and in a scant minute and a half, bogs down the overall moody flow. He could have probably taken out either "Woe" or "I Love You Little Girl", and the record wouldn't have been any worse off.
Mark Lanegan probably won't appeal to more than his friend musicians or the people who have lived his life. I feel lucky that I, a suburban white boy, could feel the emotion that he displayed. The truly mysterious thing about it all is it took no effort from me to understand this music. I feel like I've been through all the heartache, and that's where the power in this album lies. It's inviting, it's warm, and it’s evocative.