I didn’t pay an awful lot of attention to this album when it came out, mostly due to the cover – nothing wrong with it, but when almost all of Sub Pop’s other covers had been kinetic, frantic onstage affairs, this pic of Mark Lanegan sat on a chair didn’t really sell it to me.
It was the following year, when I bought the Sub Pop Video Network Volume 1 vid that I first heard a song, Ugly Sunday from this, and I went back into Manchester the next day and bought the record.
Whenever The Winding Sheet (or indeed Lanegan’s solo career in general) is mentioned, it’s generally described as downbeat and miserable. Not true. While there are plenty of dark places on the songs contained within, there is plenty of lightness to be found also and all manner of shades in between. This is an amazingly emotionally-balanced album.
Bringing in Mike Johnson to co-write and co-perform on most songs on the album, it’s a completely different Mark Lanegan that had previously been heard with The Screaming Trees. The vocals are delivered slowly and mostly in a much lower register than his work to date, and with a greater restraint at work, letting the words lead the song. And during the songs where he is truly performing solo (just his guitar and his voice), there’s a genuine feeling of soulbearing innocence apparent where he has nobody to play off (or against) other than himself.
As with subsequent albums, friends and colleagues are brought in as and when necessary to add to various songs, and as again with later projects, these are provided with the sole aim of colouring a song in rather than stamp anyone’s own personality on them. This is apparent mostly with the addition of friend Kurdt Cobain (whose own star had begun to burn very bright at this point) who pitches up on two tracks and does just enough to add shade to his contribution rather than turning it into a “Featuring…” star-studded encounter.
Of course it’s miserable in places. Opener Mockingbirds and the title track itself are misery incarnate and guaranteed to put a cloud over anyone’s head. But these are wonderfully countered by the airy Ten Feet Tall, the almost-childishly romantic I Love You Little Girl and the seemingly self-deprecating Woe. These lighter moments not only give the album as a whole a balanced outlook, but also make the dark parts that much darker by contrast – following Ten Feet Tall with his cover of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? flips the mood perfectly from a general cheeriness to being utterly sinister, followed again by the druggy silliness of Juarez and I Love You Little Girl, the solo pleading album closer.
The album’s undoubted star for me however is Wild Flowers, one of the songs that Mark performs alone. It’s beautiful in its isolation and anguished lyrics, and delivered in such a lonely and emotionally-stunning fashion, it’s impossible not to be moved. And only last week, I finally got to hear this song performed live which is something that will live long in my memory as being a genuine musical highlight.
I think I’d just split up with someone when I first hear The Winding Sheet properly. And in this context, it’s the perfect break-up album: it has sad, woeful songs for when one wants to feel self-indulgently miserable; it has lighter, more positive moments to pick oneself up; and it has these lone, shut-off songs that empathise with adolescent heartbreak. And as I’ve grown older (as opposed to growing up, which I’m in no great rush to do), I find that these songs don’t have a great memorial attachment to a person or time in particular as other songs, albums or artists have done, but have matured and mellowed to reflect whatever I happen to be feeling whenever I play it. This is the hallmark of a truly timeless classic of an album, and I can’t think of anything else that I have ever listened to that fits this bill.