What we hear first is the sound of a needle falling into the grooves of an antique record player, at 78 rpm, clueing us that this collection of songs includes reference to the totality of recorded sounds collected by human endeavor to date, an apt description of the procedural approach of Sparklehorse’s mastermind and chief mad scientist, Mark Linkous.
Coming out of the 78 groove we immediately move into what might be SH’s most beautiful and buoyant pop song to date, Don’t Take My Sunshine Away, opening with a Dear Prudence-styled guitar figure, then immediately into lushly harmonized, subtly psychedelic singing:
“Your face is like the sun sinking into the ocean
Your face is like watching flowers growing in fast motion”
Anyone familiar with vintage Sparklehorse of old will immediately realize this is a ‘Horse of a different color, a whole new era for Linkous: brighter, happier, and amazingly better produced. Mark has always obsessed with the recorded sounds on his releases, but nothing has prepared me for this leap in technical mastery, his self imposed five year hiatus from the public eye evidently spent engaged in serious study of the songwriting craft, the true masters of eras both recent and almost lost to time: Beatles, Hollies, Cole Porter, just to name a few of the obvious suspects.
He has also apparently toiled endless late nights in the study of music composition and advanced recording techniques, five years well spent, and here it all comes together in one seamless whole of perfection as he flexes his newly developed musical and lyrical muscles for the first time.
The Linkous of old often operated at cross-purposes to his own aims, at times allowing conceptual ideas to compromise the transparency of his creative genius, which makes the complete integration of his talents on this collection even more startling. Using a Radiohead comparison, after a series of recordings at the level of The Bends, Mark has made his O.K. Computer, his masterpiece, bringing together all of his up to now barely hinted at potential into a singular work of art.
To distill my view yet further, this is Linkous’ Masterpiece, now taking its place in the canon of SH recordings as the essential number one, with all the promise toward the future this suggests. The sky is now the limit, a heady prospect indeed.
Sunshine, the first tune, is produced by Dangermouse, and only a dedicated headphone listen can highlight just how perfect this pop song is, with constantly shifting focus, female vocals late in the song, and the switch to a string quartet by Linkous as it draws to a close, moving and emotional, the ending touching the infinite sorrow of the finite nature of our lives.
The second song, Getting It Wrong, with Dangermouse both producing and performing, opens with the soft touch of a vintage Fender Rhodes Electric piano, and the tune immediately evokes consonances with Lou Rhodes from Lamb and Emiliana Torrini, that certain wistful melancholy of a winter’s rain at dusk, viewed out a window alone, with no one to share, the difficult acceptance of love still unfound.
Shade And Honey follows, medium tempo pop rock in the vintage SH style, with a wash of cello floating the melody across shimmering guitar tones and exquisite wall to wall vocal harmonies.
Next is yet another masterpiece, See The Light, featuring an otherworldly choral arrangement, followed by Return To Me, this mournful acoustic waltz a barely whispered shaman’s chant to retrieve a departed spirit, a soft and sad plea for the sky and river and trees to return a beloved lost forever.
The next song, Some Sweet Day is in the style of late-period Beatles, White Album/ Abbey Road, not in some simplistically facile aping a la Oasis but richly creative yet low key, subdued, with absolute assurance of himself, no use for needless flash, featuring a lovingly composed string section and a melodic bass guitar part on par with the best of McCartney on Abbey Road.
Ghost In The Sky and It’s Not So Hard are both straight forward rockers. The band performed these to perfection live, showing just how well they work together. They Rock.
Morning Hollow, with Tom Waits on piano, is reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient pop albums of the 70s, with a sense of suspended time, zen emptiness, with space and silence an integral part of the composition.
Knives Of Summertime is a slow moving pop tune with perfect harmonies right off Abbey Road and an incredible soft backward guitar solo in the style of Revolver, the whole a sensual luxuriant ambiance of sound.
The CD closes with Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain (AKA Maxine), an beautiful extended instrumental where Mark displays his compositional skills to impressive heights.
All in all, this is a five stars/four thumbs-up masterpiece, Sparklehorse’s extravagantly accessible collection of magic. Give it a chance to work its wonders on you. You will not be disappointed.