My bones wish to escape
and run along an alien expanse
to collapse from the heat
in a cartoonish heap
oh to sleep
- Sparklehorse, “Box Of Stars (Part One)”
The worst feeling I had upon learning of the death of Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, by suicide on Saturday, was the total absence of shock. The first paragraph of everything written about him while he was alive tended to mention his 1996 near-death experience after an overdose of anti-depressants, and his music often communicated a deep, fragile sadness. So it wasn’t so much surprise to get over but numbness as it sunk in how much I loved his music, how much he’ll be missed.
I really liked the band’s debut single and only charting U.S. hit, 1995’s “Someday I Will Treat You Good,” but didn’t get around to picking up an album until I heard some interesting things about 1999’s Good Morning Spider
, which ended up being a real object of obsession for me during probably the hardest 6 months of my teenage years. That album is still a masterpiece to me, 17 tracks where no two of them feel similar enough to render one or the other redundant, and the whole messy assortment adds up to an improbably satisfying whole. And of course I went back to hear “Someday”’s parent album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot
and it was nearly as good, and I’ve come to kind of marvel at the fact that this band, whose career started on a major label and had no indie cred-building early records, could be so brazenly lo-fi, and never get dropped despite never being particularly popular.
My fanatical adoration of those two albums hasn’t really dulled over time, although I think Sparklehorse itself kind of lost its luster for me -- his label finally made Linkous hire an outside producer for 2001’s It’s A Wonderful Life
, and the Dave Fridmann polish just made all the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev comparisons retroactively hold more weight and made Sparklehorse less the singular, distinct entity they were in my mind. I’m happy for the guy that he got to collaborate with so many other artists he liked, including heroes like Tom Waits, but none of that stuff got to me like the weird shit he came up with on his own at his home studio, Static King. I never even heard that Dark Night of the Soul
record, because of my general aversion to both Danger Mouse and all-star collaboration projects. I also resented the fact that he so rarely toured that when I missed the D.C. show on the last leg of the Good Morning Spider
tour, I’d end up waiting almost 8 years for him to play the Baltimore/Washington area again, despite the fact that he was from just a few hours away in Virginia (although the show
I finally saw was great and heavy on Vivadixie
songs). I know he was more successful in the UK, but I remember being totally galled that he'd tour there and then just play perfunctory New York/L.A. shows in America when Wonderful
I’ve always been wary of the rock’n’roll impulse to romanticize depression and self-destruction, to the point that I’ve developed kind of an aversion to most sad bastard bands. Sparklehorse was one of the few that really connected with me, though, partly because there was so much more going on in his lyrics, so many ineffable and arcane turns of phrases that contributed to the overall atmosphere of strangeness in his records (that each of the first three albums contained a reference to Captain Howdy, the little girl's name for the devil in The Exorcist
, was always a subject of interest to me). In my review
of the last Sparklehorse album, 2006’s good but underwhelming Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain
, I described some of the sonic elements I loved so much in his music as: “Ghostly halos of distortion and static hover over practically every instrument and vocal track, making even the most pastoral bed of lap steel and pump organ sound like a raw nerve.” In an age when it costs nothing to make crystal clear recordings, lo-fi so often sounds like a pose or a lazy default to me, but Linkous made his fuzzy, inscrutable productions sound as meticulous and deliberate as any slick industry producer's handiwork.
The last time someone whose art I cared greatly about did something like this, when David Foster Wallace committed suicide 18 months ago, I wrote
about how I was disappointed that someone whose work spun so much beauty and profundity out of their personal problems could give into them instead of continuing to fight and create new things. I’ve never dealt with depression, real depression like these guys had, and when things like this happen I almost feel guilty for enjoying their art, like I was a tourist in the sadness they lived with all the time. And I feel guilty for wanting good things for them partly to satisfy my own worldview. I don’t want the tortured artist cliches to ring true, but also I want those guys to win some happiness for themselves after all the great things they’ve given me and their other fans. Elliott Smith’s death felt much the same way -- it was too on the nose, to obvious, something for detractors to snort and make obvious jokes about. At the time of Linkous’s death, the main page of Sparklehorse’s official site linked to a fundraising page for the family of Vic Chestnutt, another singer-songwriter whose music communicated a deep sadness and fragility who took his own life in December. Maybe these guys just weren’t made to last into old age, maybe they held on longer than they ever expected to, but for the rest of us it just feels like a waste, a huge and unnecessary loss to the world that could’ve used more of them.
A lot of Linkous’s lyrics lend themselves easily to an epitaph in a situation like this (“it’s a sad and beautiful world,” “all I want is to be a happy man,” etc.), but I think I prefer to remember those lines from “Box Of Stars (Part One)” above, which are the complete lyrics of that beautiful 33-second song. Maybe he finally escaped, and is off sleeping in a cartoonish heap somewhere.