PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse: Dark Night of the Soul

Matt Gonzales

Sparklehorse, Danger Mouse, David Lynch and an all-star cast of contributors have made one of the best albums of 2009 so far. Good luck finding it.


Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse

Dark Night of the Soul

Label: Self-released
Website
Amazon
iTunes

Dark Night of the Soul is a collaboration between Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, with David Lynch adding musical contributions as well as a complementary 100-page book of original photography. It features appearances, vocally and otherwise, from the Flaming Lips, Jason Lytle (formerly of Grandaddy), Suzanne Vega, Iggy Pop, Black Francis, Vic Chesnutt, James Mercer of the Shins, Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals, and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes.

That's the good news. The bad news? It isn't available in stores or online due to a copyright beef on the part of EMI. As a nose-thumbing stopgap, the trio is releasing Lynch's book of photography (meant to provide a visual narrative for the music) with a blank CD-R and the message, "For legal reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will."

The album is streaming at NPR.org here, and is available for download on various file-sharing web sites. While buying the blank CD-R may seem silly, it includes a full-color book of Lynch's haunting accompanying photography -- thus the $50 price tag.

The copyright issues that have blocked the album's release have gotten it a fair amount of press, but Dark Night of the Soul deserves the attention based on the merit of the music alone. The all-star cast, which rivals that which appears on this year's much ballyhooed (and spookily similarly titled) Dark Was the Night compilation, turns in nearly universally stellar performances. But the real star here is Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous. His first full-length since 2006's Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (which also featured contributions from Danger Mouse), Dark Night of the Soul is easily the most cohesive and consistent product of his heretofore only occasionally brilliant career.

Much has been written about Linkous's 1996 overdose on Valium, anti-depressants, and alcohol (and the several-minute “death” that followed when his heart stopped) while on tour with Radiohead. There's no need to recount the sordid details here. But it's impossible to separate Linkous's artistic output from his troubled past when it so often deals in such dark subject matter. That's what makes David Lynch such an interesting foil for Linkous. While Lynch has spent his career creating a freakishly dark world, Linkous has spent much of his living in one.

Not to be forgotten in the equation is Danger Mouse, who also has a history of imbuing his projects with a weird, sometimes sinister atmosphere -- most famously in Gnarls Barkley, but also with the Gorillaz, MF Doom, and others. On Dark Night of the Soul, he does far more than just supplement the soundtrack with his signature trippy laptop wizardry. He has a preternatural ability to play to the strengths of the contributors, who, it must be said, bring far more to the table than their voices. It's clear most, if not all, were involved in the songwriting process, and many of these songs could easily be mistaken for works by other bands. Jason Lytle's two contributions -- "Jaykub" and the show-stealing "Every Time I'm with You" -- sound like cuts from a lost Grandaddy album. Likewise, album-opener "Revenge", featuring the Flaming Lips, hearkens back to their Soft Bulletin days. "Little Girl", featuring a intoxicating turn by a self-deprecating Julian Casablancas, echoes a more electronic-sounding Strokes, all the way down to the noodly guitar solo.

It's tempting to credit the greatness of Dark Night of the Soul (and it is unequivocally great; a shoe-in candidate for best album of the year) to the excellence of its contributors. But longtime Sparklehorse fans will hear Linkous's fingerprints all over it. Tonally and thematically, its a tall glass of the same emotional cocktail of world-weary depression and wide-eyed wonder that Linkous has been serving up since he recorded the song that best sums up his ethos, "It's a Sad and Beautiful World", for his 1995 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot.

What sets Dark Night of the Soul apart from prior Sparklehorse albums -- aside from the superlative collaborators and contributors -- is its narrative ambition. It's not exactly a concept album; it's too impressionistic, and doesn't follow a traditional narrative arc. But its goal is obviously to lead the listener on a moody, existential journey. From meditative monologues about romantic angst (the Wayne Coyne-sung "Revenge"), to fuzzed out rave-ups about self-loathing and misanthropy (the Iggy Pop-crooned "Pain"), the songs all either describe, confront, bemoan, or reflect on the deep spiritual crisis the album title suggests.

But it's not all necessarily depressing. Linkous's biggest strength is his uncanny way of viewing even the bleakest circumstances with a whimsical detachment, and, in fleeting moments, to transform them into something joyful. This is exhibited late in the album on two consecutive female-sung tracks: "Daddy's Gone", featuring Nina Persson, and "The Man Who Played God", featuring Suzanne Vega, both of which strongly resemble Linkous's finest earlier work. They're effervescent little pop gems strummed out on crunchy guitars that beguile the listener with their radio-ready melodies.

But the pop pleasantries don't last for long. Linkous and Danger Mouse close out the affair with two mercilessly dark tracks featuring a ghoulish-sounding Vic Chesnutt and an eerily distorted David Lynch, respectively. The album's coda is also its title track, a funereal dirge on which Chesnutt sings in a despondent howl -- a reminder of the inevitable encounter with mortality that awaits us all, and the primal despair that'll accompany the moment.

Few contemporary pop albums have spoken to the human condition so eloquently, and given the listener so much pleasure in the process, than Dark Night of the Soul. It's no exaggeration to say Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse have crafted a near-masterpiece. Its only real blemish is the plodding, misguided "Angel's Harp", on which Black Francis's talents are sadly wasted. But Linkous would be be the first to concede that nothing's perfect -- and if it was, it wouldn't be nearly as beautiful.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.