|DOWN IN THE DARK
by Grant Alden (the Rocket, April 1990)
The whole idea of art is probably preposterous. One writes, sings, paints, lives...because breathing is natural and the alternative is unpleasant. From unkind silence (which is to say, the ordinary human condition) issue forth noises of varying coherence that die unheard or assume life as a kind of free-form, self administered Rorschach test. We - outside - look, listen, impose context; Ozzy forces suicide, Lou Reed speeds the path to addiction, Amy Grant summons the one true God.
Which is a lot of egghead rot to foist off on poor Mark Lanegan. The Screaming Trees' lead vocalist is a shy perfectionist, apt to stare at the floor, scrape the toe of his sneaker, and softly apologise after unleashing a rhapsodic evening of music. The Winding Sheet is his first solo venture, much of it co-written with Mike Johnson (contributor to Portland's Snipehunt, the coolest 'zine in the Northwest) and performed with a handful of friends from the local scene (Nirvana's Kurdt Kobain and Chris Novoselic, Jack-of-all-trades Endino, Trees drummer Mark Pickerel).
Only the softest flecks of the Trees vibrant dayglo psychedelia appear on Lanegan's quiet canvas. Instead, The Winding Sheet has the handsome, homemade feel of Dolly Parton's four poster bed. His subtle, semi-accoustic music turns the same corner Bob Mould tried to navigate in Workbook, after leaving the big noise of Husker Du (though Lanegan has not left the Trees, who are rumored to be close to one of those major label deals).
Lanegan creates the effortless warmth of a blazing winter fire in a mountain cabin, just one dim lantern, a guitar or two, a rough-hewn voice, maybe a jug; still, if you sit too close to the hearth, the heat will eat you up. Which may be an odd place to speak of art, but everything about this music asks to be heard as an expression of self.
His vocals are supple and expressive, reminiscent of John Cale, ranging across deep gravel to a quiet, solitary howl, then settling into a surprisingly tender, husky tone. Cale has clearly helped to shape Lanegan's music; both aspire to create something more durable than the convenient package of pop music; both explore dark corners; both are familiar with the pleasures of loud guitars. There are natural echos of Cale throughout The Winding Sheet, including Guts-era guitar lines on "Down in the Dark." (Other influences are also at work, coming to a head in the cover of Ledbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?") The Winding Sheet plays quietly, the songs seemlessly of one mind. And yet, on its own terms, it is as strident as its more traditional SubPop cousins.
All of which seems particularly striking at the moment. Rock, that quaint music of rebellion (could Elvis' hips possibly have envisioned Sid Viscious?), soundtrack to the fashionable facism of fame (if Sid had lived to sing "My Way" in Vegas, would skatepunks buy his bootlegs?), sacred liturgy from the church adolescence, has fallen fat and corporate on spreading middle age.
Lanegan's cheif success with The Winding Sheet is transforming the raucous impulses of rock'n'roll into something fresh. His lyrics insist on their importance, what remains unsaid (and unplayed) betrays unexpected feeling, and the confrontation between lonely silence and public screams of rage is usefully and poignantly transformed into song.
And, so, The Winding Sheet is at once deeply powerful and profoundly sad. The miracle (and maybe it's only a small miracle) is that Mark Lanegan, reticent singer of a still-vigorous band, has managed to craft such a mature (not middle-aged) rock'n'roll record. It is, simply, the best of all possible work: complete, unique, lasting, and wonderfully imperfect.