From its inception, Dark Night of the Soul was destined to be a storied album. An outgrowth of 2006 Sparklehorse release Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, Dark Night of the Soul was a collaboration between songwriters/musicians/producers Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous) and Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), joined by photographer/vocalist David Lynch, and a host of well-regarded guest lyricists/singers. The prospect of such a group venture aroused a lot of interest because of the names and reputations involved, and that interest was colored and heightened by the uniquely mysterious imaginations of Linkous and Lynch, as well as the record label-bucking status of Burton, the rogue individual behind 2004’s illegal yet unstoppable The Grey Album. This story had it all.
EMI’s resistance to release the album (for undisclosed reasons) added conflict to the building narrative. Then, in May 2009, Burton began to sell Dark Night of the Soul in the form of Lynch’s photography book and a blank CD-R, onto which buyers could burn the full album, which had leaked and was widely available. The darkest, final chapters to the saga seemed to arrive in the suicides of Vic Chesnutt, one of the album’s guest singers, and Linkous, the creative force behind the entire project.
Though largely well-intentioned, there was something unavoidably crass in the mass-eulogizing that took place in the wake of both singers’ deaths. On one hand, it was simply the right thing to do, especially for other artists eager to pay respects to their fellow travelers. On the other hand, much of the praise being retrospectively heaped upon the two men directed more attention to the mourners than the departed. To see so many in such a rush to declare themselves as indebted fans after the fact was a bittersweet postscript. Then again, that’s the nature of a eulogy.
Presently, more than a year after the album was sold as an art object/blank CD-R, Dark Night of the Soul is officially available in several editions, including a limited edition 2LP/2CD box set with artwork intact. Although the timing raises suspicions of a commercially calculated cash-in on the part of a record company, this official release was apparently in the works prior to Linkous’s death. To know that, however, does not change the fact that the music now carries a very different set of associations than it did when it was originally scheduled to be released. For better or worse, there are now added shades of curiosity and “darkness”. Whether or not this shift in meaning transforms its sound is up to the individual listener.
On its musical merits, Dark Night of the Soul is rewarding, if not entirely consistent. Burton lends the songs a polished style of production, somewhat expanding the normal Sparklehorse dynamics with an “improved” fidelity that features the bass prominently within the mix. The instrumental tracks that appear in the limited edition release reveal the subtleties of the production. The effect is not unlike Linkous’s own production of Daniel Johnston’s Fear Yourself, on which he noticeably upgraded Johnston’s trademark acoustic, lo-fi style.
The songwriting also fits comfortably with past Sparklehorse recordings, in that the songs range from calm keyboard compositions to up-tempo, distorted guitar numbers. As expected, the most variable element on the album is the selection of lead vocalists—an impressive lineup including Chesnutt, Lynch, Wayne Coyne, Jason Lytle, James Mercer, Gruff Rhys, Frank Black, Nina Persson, Julian Casablancas, Iggy Pop and Suzanne Vega. Especially effective are the voices kindred to Linkous’s own singing register. In particular, Coyne, Lytle, Mercer, and Lynch are perfectly suited to these compositions.
On album opener “Revenge”, Coyne sings about the insidiousness of vengeance, and his voice and delivery are in better form than anything he has appeared on since the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Lytle is featured on two songs—“Everytime I’m With You” and “Jaykub”. “Everytime I’m With You” exudes an appropriately hypnotic, drugged carnival atmosphere to accompany lyrics about being wasted, and in what is probably the album’s most memorable melody, “Jaykub” sweetly expresses an average man’s desire for success. Of the two tracks, “Jaykub” is more lyrically and musically similar to Lytle’s work with Grandaddy.
Mercer and Lynch are the two biggest surprises amongst the singers on Dark Night of the Soul. Over a vigorous, inventive mix that pairs distorted rhythms with crystal-clear strings and bells, Mercer sings “Insane Lullaby” with an affecting sense of longing and specificity of place. He delivers the defining emotional moment of the album. Then there’s Lynch, who beams in from his distinctive universe to sing “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)” as well as the title track. Lynch’s voice, with an economy of words and just enough of an otherworldly vocal treatment, turns “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)” into a mantra that has an unexpected degree of staying power, given its simplicity. Finally, on “Dark Night of the Soul” Lynch closes the album like a ghost possessing a weathered LP, instantly bringing to mind the shot of the record needle in Inland Empire.
Though many of the other singers on the album make good use of the opportunity to step outside of their everyday musical identities, some listeners might find that the voices of Black, Casablancas and Iggy Pop vary the tenor of the album in a way that too harshly interrupts the spectral Sparklehorse vibe. Keeping in mind, however, that this effort is not exclusively a Sparklehorse release creates virtues of the variety and adventurousness present in these voices and in Burton’s production.
When viewed this way, Dark Night of the Soul perhaps belongs in one’s collection next to Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams and Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, which featured a wide variety of rock artists covering the songs of Williams and Chesnutt, respectively. Those ‘90s compilations—proceeds of which went to the Sweet Relief Fund—were tribute albums that celebrated and found fresh approaches to songs by two artists that had seen more than their fair share of struggles. Dark Night of the Soul likewise assembles an all-star roster of artists to interpret material by a man whose immense gifts were accompanied and/or saddled by a reputation as a troubled artist. Yes, Dark Night of the Soul could be received as a posthumous tribute to its creator, who chose his ending on March 6, 2010. Although to frame the album only in that context would be to ignore the enduring forces of life that inspired it—sorrow and beauty in equal measure.