Mention the name Sparklehorse to knowing alternative music fans of a certain age and a gleam comes into their eyes and a sigh results when they think about what could have been. Sparklehorse was not so much a band as it was the movable creation of its lead singer and central band leader Mark Linkous. Linkous and Sparklehorse are for many an esteemed musical entity and a tale of musical tragedy. The band developed a dedicated cult following and was renowned among legendary musical performers the likes of Tom Waits and Vic Chestnut. All too often forgotten in the sad tale of Sparklehorse are the prolific excellent works that were created, as they were overshadowed by avoidable disasters and mental disorder. The story of Sparklehorse ended when Linkous suddenly and violently took his own life in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010. What I and many fans of Sparklehorse desire to remember is the engaging debut and follow up works that were earnest, audacious and brave. For those enamored of the band there is a lingering desire to honor a massively gifted individual; who was a creative musical force whose echoes are heard in many other artists’ works today.
There could be volumes written about the legendary events that spun out of control with the debut Sparklehorse album Viva Dixie Submarine Transmission Plot. There are a number of Google articles that retell the story of the literally insane things that transpired around Linkous and the band with the debut of the album. Some of the misfortunes were unavoidable and others self inflicted. I will refer you to those articles for the specifics. My intent is to give you an overview into a woefully overlooked 90’s masterpiece that still resonates years after its release.
Sparklehorse founder Mark Linkous hailed from Richmond, Virginia and had absorbed much of the flavor of his gothic southern surroundings. He pursued a music career at first in LA where he served an apprenticeship of sorts playing in the band The Dancing Hoods in the late 80’s. He eventual burnt out within the LA rock community where a band like Poison was supposed to be important. Linkous had stated about the period, “I gave up wanting to be a pop star and came home to just make great music without caring about the rest.” He headed back home hoping to reconnect with himself and rid himself of his unfortunately acquired heroin addiction. Arriving back in Virginia he connected with various local musicians and his musician brother Matt. He became drawn to the pure sounds of older music and was inspired to try again at a musical career, this time with a more solid intention to record his own release. It was in this period of time Linkous stuck up a very important friendship with ex Camper Van Beethoven front man David Lowery. During this time Lowery was forming his new band Cracker and had opened his own recording studio Sound of Music Studios where Linkous would record Viva Dixie. Sparks flew and like minds melded as Linkous gained new inspiration and encouragement from Lowery to record his debut album. The unusual name for the album came from Linkous having a very surreal dream that included General Robert E. Lee in a submarine fighting the civil war among other bizarre occurrences in the dream.
“Viva Dixie” contained a mix of older songs Linkous had written years before such as Someday I will Treat You Good and others that were completely off the cuff spur of the moment creations like Cow and Weird Sisters. The album would be idiosyncratic but never dull or off putting. Linkous throughout would display an ear for the fusion of electric mainstream pop with more eclectic sounds as they channeled through his brilliant mind. On the album Linkous utilized various members of Cracker to back him up instrumentally and he tapped into his own multi instrumental abilities adding found sounds and unusual instruments. Linkous was never comfortable at the front of his music, nor with his voice, so he muddied his songs with distortion to mask his vocals sometimes using a dirty microphone he salvaged from a land fill to record. David Lowery produced the album under the pseudonym David Charles and assisted in playing bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. Johnny Holt provided drums and percussion and Bob Rupe assisted on bass and voices.
Viva Dixie is an album filled with Linkous’ off kilter sense of humor along with his treasured cultural influences that ranged from William Shakespeare to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. The tracks were sometimes strange but made majestic by Linkous’ impeccable musicality. He seemed often especially on “Viva Dixie” to be a hiccup away from disaster but managed to implant the songs under the listener’s skin. “Viva Dixie” launches with Homecoming Queen a dark and moody piece that takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Richard III cribbing the quote, “A Horse a horse my kingdom for a horse” also referring to the crippled King in the quote, “My crooked spine becoming more brittle…”. The song describes the spiraling down of things and the twisting of what was once good into something distorted. The attenuated distorted guitar sets the mood of a troubadour singing his tale as Linkous whispers the lyrics. The song was like trying to grab smoke with its unsettling pipe organ carrousel playing out the outré. “Weird Sisters” displayed a more rock feeling with Linkous’ vocals brought out to the forefront. The lyrics portray paranoid images of death, wolves on the chase and an aura of something evil this way comes, “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” It would not be a great leap to envision the weird sisters as witches summonsing misfortune. The song has a sinister feel fed by the guitar and is simple in structure but all the more arresting for it’s stripped down feel.
850 Double Pumper Holley was named for a car race quality carburetor which is the envy of many a motorhead car fanatic. The song is a break in the action with Linkous charmingly reading the description of said carburetor and likening it to the power of a bass guitar in music compositions. This song is a prelude of sorts to Rainmaker a track that again presents a rather ominous feeling. It switches up the musical vibe from the prior creepy skin crawling doom distortion to an in your face rocker. The song lyrics describe an imp of sorts, the rainmaker: who could be good or bad. He is described as a hobo, a bum, a boogieman who watches you when you sleep. He is a shape shifter who materializes in any form, but his true skill is to make rain. The grinding guitar combines aptly with the scary lyric and generates splendid energy.
Linkous frequently used the term “Spirit Ditch” in songs. The term is a reference to a parable of Christ’s speaking about the blind leading the blind into a ditch, Matt 15:14. Linkous’ take was that rites, rituals and hardbound religious teachings keep people from true worship of God. The song Spirit Ditch speaks to someone who is locked into the pettiness of life all the while desiring release from the carnal world wanting to transcend into nature. The song is at times delicate, brittle, dreamy and gorgeous with Linkous emphasizing these feelings with his whispery distorted vocal. The song ends with a telephone message from his mother that was left on his answering machine giving the song a hallucinogenic feel. Linkous again jumps from the introspective quiet of “Spirit Ditch” to the manic aggression of Tears on Fresh Fruit. The song explodes out of the gate with a lyric describing a person attempting to find a place of safety and being pulled back into the vortex. The song could have been Linkous personifying his attempts to walk away from drugs and suicidal tendencies, describing dealing with mental illness and the price paid by those on the sidelines who are helplessly watching the struggle. The rock feel of the track belies the sadness of the lyric.
The album oscillates again with Saturday a trippy sunlit song. This is the closest Linkous gets to a love song on the album comparing the beloved to various things Linkous loved, “I’d walk to hell and back to see you smile on Saturday.” Throughout the song he procrastinates from telling his beloved his feelings, as he is so shy he is not able to bear telling those things to the person. The song is beautifully spiraling in feeling accentuated by the acoustic guitar and drum which are front and center on the song. A personal favorite among many is Cow. The song has a number of sections woven beautifully together. The banjo and harmonica intro fill the song with a country inflection using a word salad of images both positive and negative. It drives into a second section that is toe tapping and the chorus of “pretty girl milking a cow”, which sounds boring until you hear the song. If you love Arcade Fire you will appreciate this song as it could have easily fit onto “Funeral”. An amazing cacophonous outré finished the track.
Little Bastard Choo Choo is another brief vignette that breaks the action. The track is engaging with its frenetic warped train crossing sound effects. This song sets up the rocker Hammering the Cramps which is simply a stone cold cool song. The lyrics are simple but the craftsmanship of the song is spectacular. The song contains this amazing grinding guitar that plays off of Linkous’ obscured vocal. Again the addictive beat drives the song that dares you not to like it.
Most Beautiful Widow in Town is a song that will captivate the listener. The acoustic ballad contains the narrative of someone encountering a long ago flame along with the realization that time goes by and the futility of trying to relive the past when you know you can’t go back. The dream of what could have been and the impossible reality that cannot be changed creates a dichotomy that can not be squared. In the song the poignancy of the theme is realized by Linkous’ vocal delivery which is straightforward displaying his excellent voice. The track is yearning for something that never was or will be. It is a stunner of a song. Heart of Darkness addresses a failed relationship and regrets. Linkous takes the blame for the failure he believes was caused by his ever lingering depression. There is a strong rhythm and blues feeling to the accompaniment with the slide guitar feeding the emotions of the song. The track is a twin to Sad and Beautiful World.
Linkous again provides an instrumental interlude with Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble which is an insistent and aggressive track that conveys madness and insanity. It is the prelude to Someday I will Treat You Good resetting the mood from the introspective stillness at the center of ‘Heart of Darkness”. “Someday I will Treat You Good” is simply put an earworm. The most accessible track on the release, it is well formed lyrically and added to the accompaniment delivers a complete package of musical goodness. The topic takes a bad boy who treats his girlfriend badly and utilized the imagery to separate it from other cloy attempts at the subject matter. The best line is “Won’t you tell me why the beautiful ones are always crazy?”
After the insistent explosion of “Someday” Linkous returns to introspection that is an underlying theme of the release. “Sad and Beautiful World” could be proffered as “Linkous’ mission statement, it is his unique vision or understanding of the world. The slow swirling song again is simple in structure but apt in conveying the mournful incandescence of his mind. It combines melancholy and fleeting beauty in a special concoction.
The album closes with Gasoline Horseys a wistful song that seems to yearn for deliverance from the slings and arrows of the world and acknowledges the pain of loving those who are close but totally misunderstand us. In the song Linkous seems to look everywhere for deliverance. The selection is a stylistic prequel to the works of Sufjan Stevens. The track is recorded very lofi with a gospel blues feel harkening to Hank Williams and depression era radio. It is a bittersweet ending to a brilliant album; made more so by the events that followed the release.
With the release of “Vivadixie” Linkous found he had become a sensation in the alternative artistic community. Although the album did not receive widespread mainstream acclaim it was embraced by the College Radio crowd. The album caught the ear of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood who would not only champion Sparklehorse but ask the band to open for them as they began to tour “OK Computer”. Unfortunately Linkous’ lack of confidence as a frontman lead to a swirling descent into a drug overdose that had far reaching repercussions.
Linkous’ psyche which was ever hovering at the edge of depression blamed himself for the incident that almost killed him and ruined his health. He would partially recover and eventually move on releasing four more brilliant and engaging albums before his untimely death. Fans often find themselves holding their breathe as they journey through his releases hoping the end to the story could be changed and that this brilliant troubled man would finally be able to get his feathers smooth and claim the acclaim he deserved. Each Sparklehorse album is a musical adventure through an amazing lyrical mind. Never more so than on “Vivadixie” which was his attempt to understand that there is an ever present sadness in life, beauty is irresistible but fleeting and the end is always sad. Mark Linkous was not your average Alternative artist and “Vivadixie” is not your average 90’s Alternative album.