Sparklehorse is perhaps best known for the intimacy of his music. Walking along a narrow road between independent rock and experimental electronic production, Mark Linkous’ flagship project has been beloved by fans for its delicate compositions, emotional intensity, and the heartfelt connection it provided to the man himself. Over four albums, the band sculpted a fragile sound; filled with plinking piano keys, the rich beat of guitar strings, and vulnerable vocal performances oftentimes scarcely louder than a whisper. Yet beneath these fine instruments, lay powerful and inky depths.
Linkous took his own life in March 2010, after struggling with depression and chronic pain following a drug overdose in 1996. For a long time, this seemed like the end of Sparklehorse, until Mark’s brother pieced together a largely completed fifth album of tape recordings, starting in 2017. With the track list left unaltered, Matt Linkous and his wife Melissa Moore Linkous have worked to finish this release; collaborating to produce Bird Machine and add extra instrumentation to round off a few of the songs.
It’s a sombre work, though perhaps filled with the most light in the band’s discography. The tension that had once occupied much of Linkous’ work has lessened, his vocals much closer to speech than the creaking murmurs from previous records. Everything is larger, and more inclusive than it’s ever been. Whilst albums like It’s a Wonderful Life might have delighted for their indulgence in a tightly bound and tortured space, new songs like Falling Down and Daddy’s Gone embrace a far larger sonic landscape; breathing easier for the additional voices allowed into the album’s world.
This is still undeniably Sparklehorse. Having toured with the band in 2003, both Matt and Melissa have painstakingly brought the same textures and tones as older records to this new LP, and fans will recognise familiar strains of violins and wheezing organs, crunching electric guitars and twinkling xylophones. Lyrically, the same surreal flourishes abound, talk of “angels dead drunk in the snow” and ghostly presences haunting many of the tracks. However, it’s also the work of an artist who continued to change and explore right up until the end.
Earlier examples of Linkous’ work have varied between being a balm for those in need, and so gut-wrenching that you could almost be pushed to describe them as cruel; such was his sensitivity to pain. Whilst many songs balanced the beautiful and tragic, others would bind listeners in the dark. In Sunshine, from the album Good Morning Spider, “the moon explodes and floats away”, destroying the world; but Linkous is so tranquil that he hardly stirs from lying in the grass. Meanwhile, first appearing as a hidden track on It’s a Wonderful Life, the song Morning Hollow recounts the death of a dog, and drowns in a sadness so deep and understanding that it begins to drag you down too. But the new record isn’t like this. Hidden between the sad songs, the lonely ballads, and something close to what feels like a yearning for home; there is hope.
Amongst friends Mark Linkous was famed for the long time he spent writing his songs; motifs and themes often cropping up on albums years after they were first conceived. There’s no telling how Bird Machine might have turned out had he lived to complete it. But what his brother and sister-in-law have produced in his stead, now endures as a testament to his art nonetheless. It carries Mark’s voice a little further; sharing more of his music, his life’s work, with an adoring audience.