Mark Bragg doesn’t need much of an introduction in this town, where he’s as much a music establishment himself as say, Fred’s Records, or The Ship Inn Pub.

Like many Mark Bragg fans, I’ve long been drawn to the tragic-hero protagonists he sings about, as much as his wild-eyed persona that takes the stage to sing about them. After seeing him play live for the first time, over a decade ago, my partner and I debated what kind of oddball inhabited the character on stage in front of us: the harmless socks-withsandals sort of madcap, or the locked in the trunk of a car variety?

Mark Bragg releases albums somewhat sparingly. His last album, 2011’s barnburner, Your Kiss has remained in regular rotation in my house and car for 7 years, so naturally, I’m excited, alongside the rest of his fans, to watch Bragg launch his new album, Winter, at The Ship on March 29th.

Listening to Winter is a bit of a revelation. It’s the first Mark Bragg album where I’ve fully appreciated his modus operandi as a songwriter. He approaches songwriting, not as an exercise in cryptic self-expression, but as an author setting imaginative narratives against off-kilter characters and minor chords.

On Winter, Bragg assembles a subtler cast of characters, which probably makes it his most accessible album to date. While some fans might miss the manic persona and frenetic energy, there’s a maturity here that makes the songs on Winter some of Mark Bragg’s finest.

There’s still plenty of room for the dark humour and Southern Gothic flavour he’s known for, but for me, Bragg’s actually best when he gives his characters a little more breathing room from himself as the central, wild-eyed character fans have come to know and love. In doing so, he allows the strength of his talent as a songwriter come into clearer focus.

Most of the core musicians assembled for the album have been with Bragg in some capacity, or another for years: Chris Donnelly (drums), Brad Kilpatrick (drums), Mark Neary (bass), Brad Power (guitar), and Luke Power (keys).

A surprise upheaval by Bragg to Corner Brook mid-recording might have derailed the album for musicians less familiar with one another, or talented. Instead, Bragg and his band recorded remotely, emailing bits back and forth, and even Skyping in on studio sessions.

The musicianship on Winter is exactly what you’d expect from his longtime band: they’re all top-notch musicians who implicitly understand how to best serve Bragg’s songs, regardless of any change in direction; sonically, geographically, or otherwise.

While I do miss some of the aggressiveness on this album, the pulled-back landscape showcases the emotive range of Bragg’s vocals in a way not often heard. Though better known for his powerful howl, Bragg has a beautiful, vulnerable voice that’s arguably even more powerful when it’s stripped back.

All in all, I love this album. It’s his strongest and most consistent to date, and while I definitely look forward to the return of a louder, more menacing Mark Bragg, sooner rather than later, I’ll happily spend the next 7 cold seasons curled up with a wood stove and Winter on my turntable. Standout tracks: “El Toreo,” “Tell Me,” and ”Dark Horse.”