Sparklehorse's first album in five years finds a vein of beauty in gloomy experimental folk
Five years after his fourth record, It's A Wonderful Life, Mark Linkous returns with the obtusely titled Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain; and the intervening time has, on the whole, been a positive force for the volatile leader of Sparklehorse.
You have to be in the right frame of mind to tackle a Sparklehorse album. Linkous' fractured sensibility informs a fractious music; it cracks into fuzzy guitar rhythms, sparkles with big sky atmospherics, or settles into a depressive gloom without much indication which is most comfortable for the musician. Taking in the tenor of his work as a whole, it's the latter that echoes strongest -- it covers many of his songs in a layer of gloom, but also a slow-penetrating kind of beauty.
This placid demeanor belies a fine-tuned, well worked out musicianship. Linkous uses long-held notes in the bass and treble to create a sense of continuity, and they are generally effective at creating a haunting quality. "Morning Hollow", which features Tom Waits on piano, probably illustrated this best. The song is full of space, and the best part about it is that silence exists as an integral part of the song -- a soft-hit synth, a rattle of drum, and silence; perfect accompaniment for the melancholy story of loneliness.
Mark Linkous is now based in North Carolina, and his throbbing, minimal folk seems to suit that pastoral, conservative geography perfectly. Gently pulsing instrumentals fuel his most serene compositions, from the hypnotic closing cut (also the title song) to the gentle synth repetitions of "Getting It Wrong". One of the album's best songs, "Return to Me", rocks like a desolate sea shanty; when Linkous sings "Return to me, my love", the simple melody is completely entrancing. His imagery is hewn from the land, too -- mountains, rocks, grass, insects form a natural mechanism for Sparklehorse's poetry.
But what may get lost in all this effect and craft is that at their base, many of Linkous' songs are remarkably standard rock-song constructions. "Don't Take My Sunshine Away" opens with a simple arpeggio that makes up the backbone of the song; emphasized by guitar flourishes at the end of each line, they sound like an acoustic "My Iron Lung". And the more jagged rock songs, "It's Not So Hard" and "Ghosts in the Sky", reveal a conventional folk-tuned rock sensibility, the kind of tune Bright Eyes might write at his most electric.
These out of place elements that interrupt these songs here and there will probably continue to keep Sparklehorse from reaching a larger audience. Two and a half minutes into opener "Don't Take My Sunshine Away", the serenity of the song is momentarily interrupted by fuzz, out-of-time glitches; just as suddenly this interlude drops away, but the listener's left disoriented, and the rest of the song can't achieve the same peaceful beauty. Similarly, wobbly effects and fuzzy glissanndi intrude on "Knives of Summertime", overtaking the steady chugging ballad completely at its end. When Sparklehorse isn't pursuing tangents, though, the band's introspective beauty is an understated but valuable gift.