Here I go waltzing into the fourth Sparklehorse album, quite a different kettle of fish to the debut released a decade earlier. Linkous almost goes mainstream here. Almost. The lyrics are as bonkers as usual. The sound is perhaps a little dated though, a little nineties sounding. Driving, splintered distorted introspective sweet melodic pop songs, hard shells with a soft centre. Or sometimes, soft shells with a hard centre, but always that binary in operation, the mixing of the sublime with the dismal, sadness in joy and the quiet in the loud. There is a definite sound to this album—it flows, you can identify each track as belonging to this album and not say It’s A Wonderful Life which bathes in its own quite distinct sound. So, that’s a good thing. But the problem here is that Mark Linkous trades in something of his sui generis-ness for what sounds like a more conventional pop song formula. There’s a tiny little bit of that ‘heard it all before’ feeling—hey, he even stoops to stealing from the Beatles on the first song. It doesn’t feel like a step forward so much as a step sideways, and maybe even a little bit back. Still, there’s a few things here to enjoy. Now, where’s my bullywhip…
Don’t Take My Sunshine Away… starts with electronic static, a little bit Radiohead in fact, and then we get this great line, very Beach Boysish, “Your face is like the sun sinking into the ocean / Your face is like watching flowers growing in fast motion,” with a huge chorus, “Sunshine / Sunshine / Please don’t take my sunshine away.” Then we get this sixties-ish descending guitar line ripped straight from something off The White Album, and a lyric that recalls Jimmie Davis’s ‘You Are My Sunshine.” There’s a warm bass sound followed by a huge squalling middle eight section, all sorts of electronic warbles, white noise static, and this is followed up by a lone violin. It’s a promising opening track.
Getting It Wrong… there’s clearly a Radiohead influence happening here. The vocal on this song is like a lo-fi parody of Thom Yorke on the song ‘Kid A’ – voice processed beyond recognition into some kind of plastic vacuum cleaner-bot, or perhaps just a kid talking through a hose pipe. Here Linkous rhymes “higher,” “fire” and “spire” followed by “They’re playing our song / They’re getting it wrong.” Drum machine rhythm, neat little hi-fi interjections from guitar and electronic effects unit, radio static, background drone. Tune is morbid melancholy, a little weak. Not really that interesting and the lyrics are unfollowable.
Shade And Honey… is easily the poppiest song on the album. It opens with some electronic warbling and strong guitar chords. The vocal is completely unprocessed here, which is to say, that you can hear Mark Linkous singing to you in his clearest voice, something we don’t hear too often. “But if you was a horse / I could help you with your chains / I could ride you through the fields / By your fiery mane.” It’s close mic’ed as always, loud and clear in the mix like he’s right there in the room. The song is gorgeous by the way, a really warm regular pulse, clear guitar sounds, nice momentum, albeit a simple two chord structure that blends into a verse section that expands and opens like the sun is about to start pouring in: “May your shade be sweet / And float upon the lakes / Where the sun will be made of honey.” A simple, near-perfect pop song. The layering of tracks is lovely. Sounds like a song of hope. Hope and despair. Despair and hope. That’s Sparklehorse.
See The Light… opens with a chiming four note figure on guitar, while various ethereal noises and tones join in from behind, a violin starts up, bass burbles, and then the weird processed vocal, this time a harsh whisper like some kind of wasted voice, singing “Away with golden crows / I know their souls are old.” The two chord mantra rises for the lines “where the sleeping old bears breathe / I can’t see the light for the trees.” This heightens the emotion/tension and releases it in time for the next verse. This sounds familiar to me, the chiming guitar part getting louder towards the end then dying out. Pleasant enough, but doesn’t really go anywhere. And here we’re back to the hope fading again, “I can’t see the light for the trees.”
Return To Me… just a lone acoustic guitar, “Arise oh brother mountain / Our hooves hammering your coils.” Sounds like a Will Oldham lyric. Here Linkous pleads for his love to return to him. A few background notes on piano, just quiet, Linkous’s close mic’ed falsetto, one of those pretty, delicate numbers, some distant pedal steel note, and fine violin supporting the guitar which plays a repeating figure over and over throughout the song. Return to nature song? Here we’ve got clouds, valleys, caves, grass and rusting rivers. The tune is almost identical to a song called “I Saw You In The Wild” by the Great Lake Swimmers from 2005. Like too similar, almost plagiaristically so.
Some Sweet Day… has an amusing opening with what sounds like a peeping electronic note beeping like an alarm only for the ‘camera to pan back and reveal that it’s just Linkous making this sound with his voice,’ so to speak. A repeated chord strummed, relaxed punctuating bass line. It’s a love song of sorts, for a woman who has either passed out of his life, or out of this life. “I was the one who loved you most / But you can’t put your arms around a ghost.” When the chorus hits, “Some sweet day you will be mine / You will be mine,” you can’t help feeling disappointed, like the song’s been building up to this point and the instrumentation all reaches towards some grandiose moment that comes with a tired, weak-kneed chorus. This is a pity, because the balance of instruments all sounds great, and that’s something worth noting on this LP—the production is really top notch. “We drink whiskey like our fathers / Born to return back to clay / My love for you girl will never decay.”
Ghost In The Sky… is the full on assault we’ve been waiting for. Very fast, dirty white noise, pummeling drums, dusty suffocating guitar sound, and a chorus that goes “Ghost in the sky” x 4. But despite this having the same kind of vibe as ‘King Of Nails’ on It’s A Wonderful Life or ‘Pig’ from Good Morning Spider, the tune is flat, the chorus really repetitive and uninteresting and the rest of the lyrics so washed out by the guitar sound that you can’t really make out a word.
Mountains… starts with a crisp clear mountain dew sparkly ringing strummed guitar, Byrdsian, which keeps getting interrupted by dirty white noise and messy static but only briefly, and again, the vocal is recorded in the same way as ‘Ghost In The Sky’ – just below the mix, weathered, except I did catch the line “…so high / Like a diamond in the sky.” Yet again there’s no tune here at all. It plods along trying out various textures of noise across the main rhythm but fails to catch any interest. Lots of random electronic tinkling and doodling at the end of the song as it fades out. Completely unmemorable.
Morning Hollow… much slower pace, brushes on the snare, voice mic’ed so closely you can’t quite make out the words, rhythm and melody are heavy, loveless. It’s weird how he’s completely lost his ability to find a tune here at all. This is dismal. “Took a walk to the graveyard / But she didn’t want to go.” I wonder if there’s a corpse in his house: “She don’t get up when I come into the room / She don’t run through the fields anymore.” There’s a faint whiny pedal steel floating behind the plodding bass and guitar parts, but this is about as interesting as watching bricks crumble. The long slow instrumental fade out is pretty with the violin but again, the song is ungenerous, gives us nothing to work with except a dour mood. You know the songwriter knows he’s written a boring song when he desperately drags it out in the hope that longevity might make it mean something. He fails.
It’s Not So Hard… back to the full on noisy assault, this time with the drummer having a real crashing time, and Linkous’s vocal distorted again, but submerged amongst the noise. “Oh come on come on come on come on / It’s not so hard.” What’s not so hard? Writing a good tune? Even this tries too hard. Best verse is “Smile / Cos nothing here matters / The spiders get fatter / Explode into the sun.” But this is quite hard to listen to. It’s noise without any purpose.
Knives Of Summertime… I like the opening here – sounds like Boards of Canada, all eerie old keyboard sounds coming in weird waves. “A flock of knives / Cut the skies / And bury in my black eyes / And the clouds, they bled / In my head,” then something about the “hurricane of her eyes.” Then we get the chorus, “Knives of summertime” which is a pretty lame metaphor and a dull chorus to boot. There’s a pretty cool instrumental section in the middle of the song with quite a lot of weird effects on those keyboards and god-knows-what thrown into the mix, the kitchen sink, a scratchy fade out, and done. Oh man. What a let down. I really thought I’d been ‘getting’ this album, but once I finally sat down and gave it two or three serious listens the thing just seemed hollow.
Hm. Despite numerous spins this year, the album has not gelled for me at all. It gets pretty good reviews on several websites, but those are written by hacks knocking out a review after a one or two spins. Give it time, and…nothing happens. Repeated plays fail to bring any new rewards. Side Two completely lacks memorable tunes, and in lieu of that it fails to make up for it in some other way. Well no, it claws its way back to dignity by virtue of the quality of musicianship and the great sonics, but the songs themselves seem like watered down Sparklehorse clichés, and Linkous’s lyrics here just read like slightly dull pastiches of his own back catalogue. This is disappointing. The terrible second half leaves me cold. Dude has lost his muse.