More often than not, Sparklehorse’s sound is one of haunted beauty. Backed by a rotating collection of solid players — including members of House of Freaks and Cracker as well as drummer Scott Minor and backing vocalist Sophie Michelitsianos — Mark Linkous is the band’s songwriter, guitarist, frontman and chief brooder. The introspective Virginian has deftly melded a traditional rock lineup with found sounds, tape loops, drum machines and a bit of country twang, an amalgam that has resulted in a series of inventive records that, in recent years, have become increasingly obsessed with spectral presences and death.
In 1995, a decade after his days in the Dancing Hoods, a handful of Linkous’s home demos found an ear at Capitol and he made the magnificently titled Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, a record conspicuous for its literary and musical allusions as well as its dark humor. “Weird Sisters,” a quiet and oddly beautiful song about parasites, daggers and wolves, references Creedence Clearwater Revival (“There’s a bad moon on the rise,” sings Linkous), while “Heart of Darkness” gets its title, if not its theme, from the Joseph Conrad novel. Linkous occasionally lifts his downward gaze toward the sky and plays loud, angry rock songs. “Hammering the Cramps” is propelled by jangly guitar and a sticks-in-your-head refrain, while “Someday I Will Treat You Good” is loud and raucous. But there’s also some ill-advised studio noodling here: “850 Double Pumper Holley,” a baffling but mercifully brief monologue about an automobile engine, serves only to break the album’s meditative atmosphere.
After a strong debut, Sparklehorse was primed for a breakout, but 1996 was not a good year for the band. After mixing antidepressants, alcohol and Valium in a London hotel, Linkous passed out for more than 12 hours, his legs tangled beneath him. Doctors had to fight to save his life, and Linkous spent months in a wheelchair.
The band’s second album did not appear until 1999. As if trying to dispel the notion that ill health would tame his wild spirit, Linkous came flying out of the box on Good Morning Spider with the rollicking “Pig,” a gritty number driven by rambunctious guitar and equally rowdy drumming. It remains one of his most unforgettable songs. “Hundreds of Sparrows” is a skewed little love tune, and “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man” is at once dissonant and artful. Speaker-clogging noise morphs into a hopeful plea as Linkous wails, “All I want is to be a happy man.” Again, a little more self-editing would have helped — the record contains a couple of clunkers — but on the whole, it’s a fine effort.
After a relatively brief two-year gap, Sparklehorse returned with the equally strong It’s A Wonderful Life. “Sea of Teeth,” with otherworldly Mellotron warbling and lyrics to match (“Can you feel the wind of Venus on your skin? / Can you taste the crush of a sunset’s dying blush?”), revels in melancholy. Mixing pedal steel, drum machine, keyboards, guitars and drums on “Comfort Me,” Linkous creates a flawless piece of dark- hearted pop that appears to be about Virginia Woolf, the English essayist and author who drowned herself. “With rocks in my dress,” he sings, “I walked into a lake / To get some sleep down in there.” The album features some of Linkous’s well-known friends. Dave Fridmann, who has done time in the studio with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, produced and plays a variety of instruments on it; Nina Persson of the Cardigans sings on two songs; PJ Harvey sings and plays guitar and piano on another; and Tom Waits howls and bangs on “metal things” on one.
In 2002 Linkous contributed a pair of songs to — and made a cameo appearance in — the film Laurel Canyon. The following year he paired with Daniel Johnston on the latter’s Fear Yourself. By the end of ’03 Sparklehorse was playing in big arenas — sometimes too big for the band’s sound — as an opener for R.E.M.
Linkous committed suicide in March 2010.