Sparklehorse, It’s A Wonderful Life, 2001

My first copy of It’s A Wonderful Life was bought in the month it was released and for that reason it sort of rates up there as my favourite Sparklehorse album. But more than that I love an album you can put on at night and just chill out to or fall asleep to, and this is one of those babies. Because of that it received a lot more listens than it otherwise might have, but the reason is it’s subdued melodic melancholy, the hushed, often whispered vocals, and the lulling rhythms. It rarely gets loud and abrasive in the way that Vivadixiesubmarine or Good Morning Spider do. This does mean however that it tends to lack sonic variety across its fourteen tracks. Good for sleeping to, but not so good for creating memorable moments perhaps. What I mean here is that while each song can stand alone on its own terms, the unchanging lugubrious tone tends to drift and drone, merging tunes together over the course of the whole album.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a rare beast on vinyl. The first two Sparklehorse albums were reissued on vinyl late in 2010. At the time of writing (Nov 2011) Wonderful Life and its follow up Dreamt For Light Years were Europe or Japan-only releases. Here’s something unusual—the LP comes with a bonus track not available on the original CD, a ten-minute sound collage called Maxine, which was then retitled as ‘Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain’ and included on the CD version of the follow-up album, Dreamt For Light Years.

Dave Fridmann, once a member of early Mercury Rev, has a big hand in the production of this album. He’s given it a very lush, even sound, almost too even. Linkous’s tendency to throw in short tracks of concrete weirdness has been reined in to some extent, and he seems to have dispensed with laying down shards of white noise, static, sonic flotsam, whatever, over top of the tracks. This was the first Sparklehorse to be recorded with other musicians in a commercial recording studio. The first two were completely solo affairs. In addition to Fridmann, also guesting here are PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Nina Persson, Vic Chesnutt and John Parish.  Is it a wonderful life? Diamond down, let’s find out…

It’s A Wonderful Life…starts with a slow organ/drum rhythm. “I am the only one / Can ride that horse / The yonder / I’m full of bees / That died at sea,” and so begins another round of the Linkous hodge-podge of solipsistic figuration that shakes off the need to make sense to anyone other than himself, echews meaning for mood, which in the realm of pop music is fine really, otherwise there’d be no such thing as instrumental music. This song slumps along with a lovely vibe, and Linkous’s lonely plaintive assertion that “it’s a wonderful life.” When he sings lines like “I’m the dog that ate / Your birthday cake” though, you have to wonder just how wonderful this life really is, and I’m not talking about irony or sarcasm, but degree. It’s like he does mean it, but only just.

Gold Day…is just as delicate as ‘Wonderful Life’ with a similar organ/keyboard feel over a simple drum beat. In fact simplicity is the name of the game here. Even the singing style follows a fairly straightforward pattern on every line, Linkous always in that faint falsetto mood reminiscent of Jonathan Donahue from Mercury Rev. The feel here, with the ‘tooting’ organ sound, is one of catatonic stares out the window. The chorus “Keep all your crows away / Hold skinny wolves at bay / In silver piles of smiles / May all your days be gold my child.” A song of hope. It’s impossible not to enjoy this, it’s such a pretty delicate and warm thing.

Piano Fire…uses a very fuzzy guitar sound, static, faint white noise, forward leaning rhythm, much more pop than the first two songs, but with a very soft blurred edge. PJ Harvey provides backing vocals and they sound marvelous together on the chorus: “How do you feel? / How do you feel? / I can’t seem to breath with a rusted metal heart / I can’t seem to see through solid marble eyes.” Great tune.  Simple compelling stuff. The images throughout the song are ones of decay and breakdown – fiery pianos, squeaky old organs, rusted metal hearts – a theme apparent throughout all Sparklehorse albums to date.

Sea Of Teeth…is perhaps an unnecessary filler kind of track I suppose. It harks immediately back to the somber tone and speed of the first two tracks. Linkous abandons the falsetto, but still keeps his voice close to the mic, and asks questions like “Can you taste the ghosts / Who shed their creaking hosts?” and “Can you taste the crush of a sunset’s dying blush?” while “trees will turn to soil.” Of course they will because in Linkous-land everything’s returning to dust. The song plods a bit too repetitively, even though the instrumentation, the piano, a distantly warbling organ, a clear acoustic guitar, all sound very pleasant.

Apple Bed… “Of horses wet / Of melted ice / They would not heed / My advice / And burdened limbs / Of its weight / To break and rot / A whispered fate” – more decay. This song takes the tempo and tone of ‘Sea Of Teeth’ and strips it bare. It’s heavily minimalist stuff. “Doctor please” pleads Linkous with Nina Persson on backing vocals. Despite the song sounding almost tuneless and dully downcast, it’s immensely listenable, awfully melancholy, though perhaps the least interesting one here so far. In this song Linkous wishes he had “a horse’s head / A tiger’s heart / An apple bed.” Well, hey, don’t we all. A lo-fi very subdued, slow ‘industrial beat’ takes over while we start to get faint weirdnesses filling in the cracks – various backwards effects. Each song here exists on a kind of ‘sound bed’. By this point, it starts to feel like a song-cycle rather than a collection of individual tracks.

King Of Nails… back to the guitars, with the just-perfect amount of distortion, a louder drumbeat and Linkous playing the “the toothless king of skeletons and summer hail.” Here’s he’s “the king of nails” drinking liquor from “the palm of a child who spoke in tongues / And smelled like suns.” This kind of stuff reads as extra-lyrical, a kind of meta-text that speaks something about language itself, the inability of language to communicate directly, so Linkous comes up with words and images that circumvent this disconnect – something approaching Roland Barthes’s notion of the ‘sublime.’ Neat piece of feedback in the middle of the song. Song gets more intense, builds to a point where all the noises drift together, pointing in the same direction towards the end of the song, yet never grating, not once sounding ‘noisy’ despite the wonderful noise he’s creating. It’s subtly seducing – you get slowly wound into it until the tune surrounds you. Probably the best song here so far. Loving it.

Eyepennies… piano (John Parish) opens this very slow song, with a drumbeat that really does plod to capture the downcast mood: “I will return one day / And dig up my bones from the clay / I buried nails and strings and hair.”  Eyepennies are those coins you place over dead people’s eyes. Why? To stop the eyes from sinking back into the head apparently – an ancient Greek custom. PJ Harvey again. I love hearing her voice in here – really adds something beautiful to the song. This is resigned stuff. “At sunrise the monkeys will fly / And leave me with pennies in my eyes.” Again, the tune is one of those three or four-note melodies that catches you in its grasp and locks you down. It’s hard to actually do anything while listening to this kind of music other than want to drift off, the rhythm is so lethargic and soporific and dozy.

Dog Door…a warbling lo-fi organ, static, a squeaking wheel, before the Tom Waitsian lo-fi pots and pans rhythm starts up and we get Linkous doing one of Waits’s Real Gone kind of mad old man vocals…until Waits himself joins in, almost like a joke, as if to say “you think this sounds like Tom Waits? Well it is!” They keep singing, “She got me coming through the dog door” with the bizarrely falsettoed Linkous in one speaker and an even more bizarre stentorian and gravelly voiced Waits in the other speaker, together sounding like a pair of what my grandfather would have called ‘crazy coots.’ Quite funny when you listen to it closely. Beautifully eccentric. The only thing about these kinds of Real Gone songs is that they’re usually a one trick pony – all based around a particularly mad-sounding rhythm that gets too repetitive if nothing changes. That’s a weak criticism though because this song slots in nicely to the album at this point. The rest of the lyrics barely make any sense to me.

More Yellow Birds… is the song that makes me think Linkous’s whole horse obsession thing is this idea that in each of our souls resides an animal and his is a pony. It’s like those characters in Phillip Pullman’s books who carry around with them a ‘daemon.’ Here we have a lone violin meandering through a mid-heavy beat. Gorgeous. Linkous’s voice filtered just slightly, close mic’ed as always. Opens with some kind of memory of a vacation at the beach. His voice pushes back into its falsetto territory, but then things start going wrong: “And the Captain Howdy lit upon my shoulder / And he left me with sulfur and rooms full of headaches / I fell in with snakes in the poisoned ranks of strangers.” Earlier in ‘King Of Nails’ we’d had Linkous ‘siring’ (fathering) snakes. Snakes, with their usually negative connotations probably means this is not a good sign. And then he asks, “Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?” Hm, what happened to the ‘wonderful life’ from the first song? This is much darker. He wants to be sent more yellow birds for the dim interior. This is easily the most disturbed/disturbing song here.

Little Fat Baby…slow to mid-tempo beat, acoustic guitar, sounding very much in the same vein as those slower numbers on Side One. Beat drops out for the chorus, while cello plays along, just one of those quivering, fragile Linkous vocals. Amusing lines here: “Did you lose your fatty in the bath? / Did you make the city slickers laugh?” and then the chorus: “He got dragged by a donkey / Through the grass and the myrtle / But he was once a little fat baby.” Very lush break between verses, almost Beatlesesque with its odd chord change. Lovely shimmering violins before the beat drops out again for the chorus. How can such simple sounding music be yet so bizarre? There’s something almost comic in all of this.

Devil’s New… is the only time the surrounding psych-ward-aid studio boffin assistants allow Linkous a chance to indulge himself with a piano and a finger on the tape-speed button, while barely audible vocals play at different speeds saying, “But it would not die.” Piano part is really melancholy and slow here, various backwards, warped effects. Not really a ‘song.’ Vocal part sounds like it’s coming through a telephone. Almost demonic in places with those warped slowed down vocals. Very Lynchian in its weirdness.

Comfort Me… sounds sort of post-suicide: “With rocks in my dress/ And smoke in my hair / I walked into a lake / To get some sleep down in there.” The rhythm track is a slightly cheap sounding Casiotone kind of affair. Very warm bass sound, keyboard parts. Much more upbeat than most everything else on Side Two. Chorus asks over and over, “Won’t you come and comfort me?”  Here’s a lyrical analogue for the whole Sparklehorse ethos: “Dreamed I was born on a mountain on the moon / Where nothing grows or ever rots / I dreamed that I had me a daughter / Who was magnificent as a horse” (which sounds like an intertextual link to Smog’s brilliant Red Apple Falls). That’s the entire Mark Linkous’s subjectivity-mediated-through-Sparklehorse right there in those four lines. And the comforting goes both ways. He’ll ask you to come comfort him in return for a whole album of warm, amniotic rhythms. Beautiful violin-keyboard tones at the end. Welcome home.

Babies On The Sun… is the last track on the CD version, a great little number that opens with quiet, lo-fi staticky warbles, then this keyboard part of three notes repeated endlessly that sounds like an old tape playing on a wonky playback device. It’s a nice tune, lots of rickety texture in this song. The chorus just repeats the title, but here’s a good verse: “Your first burning breath / Was a symphony / And a ship full of horses / Was going down at sea.” The pace is funereal. In fact this is one of the weirdest songs on the whole album, and yet a total lullaby at the same time. There’s a kid’s voice talking faintly in the background which at the same time evokes the sound of an astronaut reporting in from space about what he’s seeing. Babies on the sun indeed.

Maxine… is like an eight or ten minute sound collage, just a faintly flanged electric guitar, a slow underwatery beep like that of a submarine or a sound effect from Star Trek, short snippets of white noise static, yet there’s a distinct ‘tune’ here, as the pulsing electric guitar moves through chord changes, then a piano part starts up. The tone is extremely despairing, or, um, let me find an analogue for this: it’s stoned stuff, a lonely weekday afternoon when everyone’s at work and this song is the sounds happening on the inside of your head when you’re thinking about absolutely nothing at all, but sensing perhaps a vague dread that you were supposed to be working on something important but you can’t for the life of you remember what it was. That’s it – I’ve nailed it with that description. Mainly because I should be working on my thesis on this pensive Thursday afternoon instead of sitting around all day reading David Foster Wallace and listening to Sparklehorse.

So, this has been the hardest Sparklehorse album to write about, mainly because it has the least amount of distinct changes between songs, which is why I refer to it as a song-cycle. It’s very much a one-piece, an album-lover’s album, a lo-fi symphony to the passing away of time and life with only the occasional reach into the light for a bit of hope to keep going. Like an hour-long soundtrack to Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” An album all about sound in my opinion, a sound to immerse yourself in as you drift off to sleep, the decay of your conscious mind as it begins to merge into dreams. Best tracks were those with PJ Harvey on backing vocals. They sound great together. With hindsight, I don’t think It’s A Wonderful Life is quite as good as Good Morning Spider. It could have done with some more variation. On his next album, Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A M0untain Linkous would take his musical further in a mainstream direction.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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One Response to Sparklehorse, It’s A Wonderful Life, 2001

  1. Roddy Ruru says:

    Babies on the Sun is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard

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