When most people think of Mark Lanegan, they may think of the Screaming Trees, the psychedelically-infused hard rock band from the Seattle region that Lanegan co-founded and sang for, or of Queens of the Stone Age, the guitar-driven rock and roll outfit led by Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri that featured contributions from Lanegan. In recent years, Lanegan has been showing a softer, more delicate side through his duets with former Belle and Sebastian cellist/vocalist Isobel Cambpell in what may be described as a contemporary Lee Hazelwood-Nancy Sinatra pairing. For those surprised by the soft side of Lanegan, all that is needed is to peruse his “solo” efforts. I hesitate to use the word solo because on many of his non-band-related projects, the number of people involved in recording almost amount to a mini-super group. Case in point: Lanegan’s first solo effort, The Winding Sheet.
The roots of The Winding Sheet lay in a never fulfilled project between Lanegan, Screaming Trees’ drummer Mike Pickerel, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic that began in late 1989. Why the project fell apart is hard to say. Nirvana had just released the Blew EP, and the band was over five months from beginning work on Nevermind. Originally planned as an EP of blues songs, only one track, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, featuring both Cobain and Novoselic, managed to survive the aborted project and find its way onto the final album. Another number, “Down in the Dark”, features Cobain on background vocals. After Cobain and Novoselic left the project, Lanegan and Pickerel recruited Mike Johnson, Lou Barlow’s replacement in Dinosaur Jr., who co-wrote the majority of the songs on The Winding Sheet with Lanegan, and Jack Endino, the man who produced the lion’s share of grunge bands in the mid-to-late 80s.
With a lineup of two Screaming Trees, the bass player for Dinosaur Jr., and the producer largely responsible for the “Seattle Sound,” the resulting album might be expected to be extremely loud, aggressive, and testosterone-laden. In other words, like much of the output from the region already. Rather than amp up the volume and blaze forward with a barrage of guitars and drums, Lanegan and co. instead stripped down the songs, using mostly acoustic instruments with electric guitars used for nuance and body. As a result, the songs are more personal and introspective, focusing on more serious concerns, with the acoustic nature allowing more attention to be put on the lyrics. Alcohol-drenched dirges expose a dark night of the soul as Lanegan battles his inner demons, be they physical or emotional, chemical or sexual–the struggle to overcome but often failing into the bottom of a bottle.
Upon listening to The Winding Sheet, the contemporary listener may feel compelled to note stark similarities between this album and Nirvana’s Unplugged from a few years later. There is good reason. The roots of Nirvana’s unplugged performance are firmly grounded in the blues sessions with Lanegan. Dave Grohl, who at the time of this album’s recording had yet to even meet Nirvana, in later years has praised The Winding Sheet and cited it as a huge influence on how Nirvana approached the Unplugged project. Instrumentally, it’s a no-brainer; however, vocally, it is eerie. Cobain’s vocal inflections heard throughout his more nuanced and delicate material can be traced to Lanegan’s vocal approach. When Lanegan strains his voice singing, “You can’t kill what’s already dead” on opening track “Mockingbird” or during the gentle “Museum”, or perhaps most evidently, when Lanegan is screaming the final lines of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, there is little doubt to his influence on Cobain.
Lanegan’s vocal style not only informed Cobain’s approach but also that of Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley. On “Down in the Dark”, the acoustic nature is temporarily set aside for a deeper, heavier, bass-driven approach. The vocals hover within the electric fuzz, not quite buried, but not overtly out in front. The wrenching “Woe” is a great example of Lanegan “lending” vocal phrasings (and even perhaps topicality) to Staley, while “Down in the Dark” is more musically connected to Staley’s band’s sound. In fact, there is a lot on The Winding Sheet without which Alice in Chains’ August 1990 debut, Facelift, might have sounded dramatically different.
Softer, more purely acoustic tracks like “Museum”, “Wild Flowers”, “Eyes of a Child”, and album closer “I Love You Little Girl” show a more open and emotive Lanegan, vulnerable and reserved. It is on these acoustic numbers that Lanegan’s prose is most evident. Not content to write lyrics that plainly and simply convey a story, Lanegan’s songs are truly poetic. The album’s title track exposes Lanegan as a man at war with his own soul, and the opening stanza of “Eyes of a Child” is haunting with lyrics “See through the eyes of a child/And it won’t be real/Eyes neither hateful or cruel/No lies conceal/Eyes that wander, eyes that strayed/While the shame in your heart remains.”
In addition to containing songs and music that would later influence other, perhaps more recognized, artists, The Winding Sheet also has moments highlighting influences on Lanegan. “Ugly Sunday” gives hint at the Hazelwood-esque side of Lanegan’s artistry that would emerge 25 years later with his Campbell duets. With lyrics like “It’ll take a hard rain to wash your taste away,” “Ugly Sunday” could be a cousin to Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning”. In addition to Hazelwood’s handprint, the blues make appearances all over The Winding Sheet, specifically with the cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”.
Most commonly attributed to Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, originally called “In the Pines”, has its roots in Americana going back to the 1870s. With as many lyrical alterations as there are performers who have covered it, the song almost universally features a female character under suspicion and usually accused of doing wrong, often something of an adulterous nature. The song effuses with jealousy and rage almost to the point of genuine horror and tragedy. In Lanegan’s version, jealousy doesn’t seem to fit. The lyrics begin asking where the girl was the night before. Her answer, “In the pines… where the sun don’t ever shine,” would be enough to allow for suspicion; however, the final stanza provides the big reveal. “Her husband… his head was found… but his body never was found” seems to suggest that the protagonist of the song may have indeed been in the woods… burying her murdered husband.
American Gothic would continue to fill crevices in Lanegan’s songwriting, but it is here on The Winding Sheet where it all began. The understated sounds on this album have been magnified exponentially through its tremendous influence, adding more weight to Grohl’s belief that The Winding Sheet is “one of the best albums of all time.”