“Can you taste the crush of a sunset’s dying blush?”
So sings Mark Linkous, lead singer of Sparklehorse, a lo-fi indie rock band adored by critics, admired by musicians, and generally unknown to the average listener. As NME puts it, Sparklehorse’s career was “perennially, heart-breakingly under-appreciated.” Sparklehorse stood out from the waves of independent bands and created a niche of crackling static and haunting imagery – a niche that lays empty following Linkous’ suicide in 2010.
Plagued by depression and drug addiction, the Virginian singer suffered a near-death experience in 1996 that haunted him through the rest of his life. While on tour in London playing Sparklehorse’s debut album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, he overdosed on a cocktail of antidepressants, alcohol and Valium. This incident, which led to the short-term paralysis of his legs, influenced the somber tone of his next album, Good Morning Spider. Exploring his frustration with the lack of control over his own body in the song “Pig” and dedicating the delicate ”Saint Mary” to the nurses who cared for him while he recuperated, Linkous created an album that refused to be pigeon-holed or deemed ”mainstream.” He even went so far as to distort the sound of ”Happy Man,” fearing it would be too catchy otherwise. These styles were present throughout Sparklehorse’s five-album discography.
Indeed, what’s most striking when listening to Sparklehorse’s music is the surreal, poetic lyrics that Linkous gently lays out at the feet of his audience. From the description in It’s a Wonderful Life of “fiery pianos” that ‘wash up on the foggy coast,” to the girl who “combs her hair with blood” in Dreamt for Light Years…, we can find traces of influence from artists like Tom Waits and David Lynch, both of whom Linkous worked with on his albums. However, one figure stands in prominence when looking at the influences on Sparklehorse.
The Romantic poet William Blake was often cited as an important influence on Linkous’ work, with Linkous even drawing an analogy between Blake’s collections of poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience and his own music. While Sparklehorse’s gentle and dreamy songs, such as “Saint Mary”or “Spirit Ditch,” could be likened to the inexperienced and childlike voice of Innocence, the more punk-influenced and aggressive songs like “Pig” embody the voice of oppression and rage in Experience.
Not only was Sparklehorse’s rendition of Blake’s poem “London” a fan favourite at concerts, but even his Romantic-esque apprieciation for the lushness of nature echoed the poet. With cows, spiders, and “tears on fresh fruit” all featured in his songs, Linkous drew upon the world around him to create a soft, beautiful view of nature. But this joyful freshness is underlain by harsh distortions of melody created by defective amplifiers, answer machine messages and wireless intercoms from the 1950s.
It is here that Linkous strikes out on his own path. Not wanting to simply describe the beauty of the world, he portrayed it through a lens of severe depression and frustration. And this is what most strongly connects Linkous and Blake – a shared desire to depict their own vision of the world. For Blake, this was a sickened world of poverty and injustice that could become a utopia if not bound by the shackles of institutions like the Church. For Linkous, it was much simpler. For him, life was full of suffering, joy, sorrow and love.
From the very beginning, Mark Linkous had one simple message for his listeners – “it’s a sad and beautiful world.”
Excellent piece. Mark was a genius and his take on London is just great.
Memorable coolest writer of all time…RIP, Jono
Thanks for analysis and writing about Mark Linkous, Kyle. Besides my family and several friends on social media, I never read anything substantial regarding Sparklehorse.