When you’re confronted by the reality of death, in the way I’ve been of late, you tend to think about mortality a great deal. With
musicians, those who leave before their threescore-and-ten are up sometimes find their body of work over-feted, like Amy or Kurt, with
no suggestion they might have gone on to sully the legend, like the stand-up predicts by describing Jimi Hendrix today, playing the
Superbowl half-time with Miley Cyrus; both of them sponsored by Doritos. Either that, or the deceased still had good work ahead of
them but they never broke out of cult status, didn’t live to burnish their reputation in the decades to come (unlike Suicide or The Fall)
and too often wound up forgotten; a footnote to musical history.
Such is the case with Sparklehorse, the project of one Mark Linkous who left us in Knoxville, Tennessee, half a decade ago at the
age of forty seven. According to his manager, Linkous had an album of material nearly done, recordings that haven’t seen the light of
day and possibly never will. The last time I saw Linkous perform as Sparklehorse was a couple of years prior to his departure, within
the incongruous surroundings of Butlins food hall, Minehead where he opened the main stage at the Portishead-curated All
Tomorrow’s Parties. Here Linkous played excellent new songs in a solo performance blighted by an uncomprehending soundman
who didn’t seem to understand his intentions.
That said, it can’t have been easy to get right. Linkous always wove a spellbindingly, complex texture through his recordings, so it was a constant struggle to recreate that sound live. He was
born into a coal mining community in Virginia and used music as a way to escape the family destiny, leaving for the bright lights of NYC then LA in the early 1980s. Mark Linkous spent his
early twenties in an indie band called The Dancing Hoods who recorded two albums, back in the pre-Internet age. There’s some footage of them on YouTube and the music’s good, even if
Linkous’s bandmates favour the hair-metal perm that was de rigeur at the time. They garnered a modest following but never the kind of record deal that would have made TDH a full-time
concern. So, in 1988 Linkous returned to his home state, far from the dream-shattering West Coast record industry.
Here and through the rest of his life, Linkous was stricken by periods of the depression that would eventually kill him, and it was seven years before the
recordings he subsequently put together surfaced under the Sparklehorse name. When they did it was worth the wait, with music industry contacts helping to get
Linkous’s debut collection of fragile ballads, roaring pop music and odd interludes into the wider world, an LP he called ‘Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot’.
With the marketing muscle of Capitol Records behind him (or Parlophone in the UK), at the age of thirty-three Linkous was being widely heard for the first time. This led to admiring reviews
in the music press, Radio 1 playlisting and fans in high places. Among the luminaries turned on to his ‘sad and beautiful’ songs were R.E.M, The Flaming Lips, and Radiohead, all of whom
took Linkous out on tour. Indeed, Thom Yorke has described how ‘Ok Computer’ lament ‘No Surprises’ was an attempt to capture the mood and
emotions of ‘Vivadixie…’s brief centrepiece ‘Saturday’. Listen to the two tracks and you can’t miss the similarities. You’ll also notice ‘Saturday’ is
arguably the better song.
It was while opening for Radiohead in 1996 that fate would intervene to change the course of Linkous’s life. Having been prescribed Valium as well as his usual round of
anti-depressants, he made the mistake of mixing them with alcohol and collapsed in his hotel room, pinning both legs under his body for fourteen hours before being found. When
he was eventually moved the sudden shock stopped Linkous’s heart for several minutes and, once revived, he would endure major surgery
and months of hospitalisation, effectively crippling him for life. His legs never fully recovered and he needed to wear a brace on one for
almost a decade.
At the 1996 Reading Festival Linkous managed to deliver a sparkling set from his wheelchair, and it’s testament to his strength of will that
a second record appeared at all. But within two years it did and, for me, ‘Good Morning Spider’ is the crowning glory of the Sparklehorse
oeuvre; a cinematic patchwork of sound and melody that forms a coherent and complete masterwork. These are songs that make less
sense on their own than assembled by Linkous into a collage, this auteur who played most of the instruments and produced the record
himself. Indeed, although ‘GMS’ is only made up of fourteen songs (and some of those are quite short) it feels epic, because of the myriad musical styles deployed, all the
melodies Linkous gives us and his multiplicity of effects; almost as if the compositions aren’t so much arranged as sound designed.
Inspired by his brush with mortality, there are references to nurses, angels and benign figures of healing, philanthropists who exist alongside the usual menagerie of livestock that appears
on every Sparklehorse album, evidence of his fascination with the natural world and the creatures therein. After a brief series of hummed oohs the LP kicks off with the grim noise explosion
of ‘Pig’; two loud and distorted minutes in which Linkous tries to exorcise all the frustrations of his stalled career, denigrating sensitivity and trying to be the kind of man who is free of all
feeling: “I wanna be a tough-skinned bitch, but I don’t know how.”
From the noisiest moment to one of the softest. ‘Painbirds’ brings with it background cello and a marvellous cornet motif, Linkous
lamenting “Goddamn it’s so very hot…” The pace drops even further through ‘Saint Mary’, an autobiographical plaint with Linkous grateful for the
ministrations of staff at the eponymous London hospital, all the while longing to get back to the nature and woods of his home. This acoustic
lament is of a piece with the other songs such as ‘All Night Home’, ‘Come on In’ and ‘Sunshine’ (the latter featuring guest vocals from Vic
Chesnutt, who committed suicide around the same time as Linkous). Each one of these sounds as frail as the singer must have felt during the
recording, but the ballads all end up soothing as a balm.
In-between these low-key compositions come intermissions, from fragments of lullaby to ambient atmospherics to the white noise transmission of ‘Chaos of the Galaxy’,
before we hit the big pop songs, and they were never bigger for Sparklehorse than they are here.
‘Sick of Goodbyes’ is a co-write with guest performer David Lowery, formerly of Camper Van Beethoven. A more rootsy recording of the song appears on Cracker’s 1993 hit record ‘Kerosene Hat’, but this version is perhaps the most straightforwardly catchy moment here, with acoustic power chords and a harmonised chorus. It’s of a piece with the later ‘Happy Man’ which emerges from static, the singer fading in and out as
if surfing a faulty radio signal, demanding patience from the listener before the volume rises and a plaintive cry makes its way through. Here the hopes of Linkous sit uneasily with images
of desperation: “his eyes were crazy as he crashed into the cemetary gates… and all I want is to be a happy man.”
Many of the memorable moments on ‘Good Morning Spider’ are saved for the second half and, after the wispy Daniel Johnston cover ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Come On In’ is somnolent yet welcoming,
downbeat but hopeful, and a precursor to possibly the finest song Linkous ever wrote. ‘Maria’s Little Elbows’ currently forms part of kindred spirit John Murry’s live set, Murry doing his
bit to keep Linkous’s music alive, and you can understand why. From the moment a spine-tingling acoustic riff kicks in this is clearly something special. Linkous, who was renowned for
using his voice as an instrument; to be processed, amplified or muted at will, derives much of the power here from removing such effects and
letting his voice stand alone. At the start his vocals are sincere, wandering into falsetto but still powerfully understated. The lyrics too, show
sympathy with Linkous’s eponymous heroine, a lost girl hit by loneliness and the pressures of the world. Still, the singer-songwriter is unable to
resist distorting his words for the mid-song talky bit, hissing: “She said I’ve really come to hate my body, and all the things that it requires in
It would be hard for any songwriter to follow that, but Linkous manages it with the skronky soloing of noise-pop opus ‘Cruel Sun’ and then ‘Ghost of his Smile’ which employs
chugging guitars and a beepy riff to become the greatest song Grandaddy never wrote, and one that ought to be as well-known as their advert-soundtracking ditties. It’s also
a tune that features another of Linkous’s cast of charming yet elusive women, one who “never passes without saying hello.”
The animals are back towards the end, across swooning love song ‘Hundreds of Sparrows’ with its prominent drums and wonderful melody: “Every hair on your head is killing me, you
are worth hundreds of sparrows” segueing into images of fertility and rebirth; “the tree that you’ve planted has become fecund”. Then we slow it right down for ‘Junebug’, Linkous looking
to the titular insect for salvation, assessing existence with an ethereal longing for this tremendously moving conclusion: “Bring me some luck, little junebug”. And really, after everything
he’d been through, who would deny Linkous a little good fortune by now?
Career-wise, he certainly got it. Linkous’s stock rose further, through the recording of two more albums of what one Amazon reviewer
calls “beautiful, otherworldly music” under the Sparklehorse monicker, all the while playing with some of the biggest bands in the world. A
collaboration with Dangermouse, David Lynch and a host of famous musicians comprised 2010’s ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ as Linkous
became a sought-after producer in his own right.
But he could never fully escape his physical, personal and psychological problems. Linkous spent the years after 9/11 unable to work because of what he termed “a
paralysing vortex of depression” and then, in 2010, he shot himself in the heart with a rifle outside a friend’s house, as the suffering became all too much. And you have
to respect Mark Linkous’s decision, try not to focus on the songs we missed out on and realise that, for some people, staying in this world isn’t worth all the pain; the
horror and the hassle.
Unlike, say, Elliott Smith, the reputation of Sparklehorse hasn't grown very much in the years since Linkous’s death. With no more product to come, and nobody to market the music if there was,
it’s difficult to see Linkous being discovered by future generations in any great numbers.
So it’s up to us, the fans, to keep his music alive. As someone who was privileged to see Linkous live on half a dozen occasions, from the rarefied surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall to a
sticky-floored room upstairs in a seaside holiday camp, I can say without question that his performances were always moving, often transcendent. With that in mind, believe me when I say that
you need to listen to ‘Good Morning Spider’ and, if you warm to this classic LP, there are many other fine records in which Linkous had a hand. They too, more than deserve your attention.
‘Good Morning Spider’ is available in all formats from the usual outlets at a reasonable price.