On certain records, time stands so still you can hear a needle drop. It’s permanently 1 a.m., the night is made of burnt-out dreams, and amnesia is just a sigh away. “Candy Says” fixes the slo-emo oblivion of the Velvet Underground with the halting grace of a sleepwalker doing a naked pirouette: ” . . . I’ve come to hate my body/And all that it requires in this life.” Big Star’s “Big Black Car” might just give the purest expression to this mood (and mood is everything here, because the outside world has been banished from view) of numbness and rapture so entwined you can’t or don’t want to tell them apart. Syllables, instruments, flesh, and memory are slurred together to form a petrified cloud of longing: “Why should I care/Drivin’s a gas/It ain’t gonna lassszzt.” The singer makes like a tree falling in an empty forest, gratefully surrendering to decay and disintegration, preparing to crash.
Vinyl, with its host of nicked and scratched imperfections, was the ideal home for fetishized entropy, and side two of Neil Young’s On the Beach was its apotheosis, extending the form into a whole human-stained suite. First was the ghostly dread of the self-inflicted title cut, pitched darkly between the lacerating and the hypnotic. Next the Wim Wenders-in-miniature celluloid landscapes of “Motion Pictures,” compressed to the size of a motel room: “I’m deep inside myself but I’ll get out somehow.” That in turn bled into the interminable, circular road wrecks of “Ambulance Blues,” where every casualty served as the singer’s broken mirror and even Richard Nixon seemed like a figment of Young’s restive imagination. Motionless beach blues: a portrait of the artist buried up to his skinny neck in the past and still doing his level best to piss in the wind, refusing to distinguish a hole in the sand from a hot tub.
When Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous murmurs “It’s a won-der-ful life,” he sounds like a junkie-collector who has waited his whole life to melt his records down for one perfect injection: timbre as morphine. It’s a Wonderful Life is the third album by Sparklehorse, and it’s an almost unbearably well-realized work—not a tender note out of place, every bit of ache and faux-vinyl static as familiar as the constellations on a clear desert night. Sparklehorse is more a state of mind than an actual band, with Linkous recruiting sidemen and -women to fill out the pet sounds in his head, and here he’s managed to stretch out On the Beach‘s 20-odd minutes of sustained reverie to a full hour. Or else he’s reimagined what After the Gold Rush might have sounded and felt like had Neil Young recruited the Velvets for his backing band. As Jimmy Stewart said to Maureen Tucker at the end of that beloved old movie about suicide and hating your very existence, by golly, it is a wonderful life.
Mark Linkous comes with the most impeccable references in rock history (unless Peter Laughner counts, and he probably doesn’t), which accounts for Sparklehorse’s genius as well as the limitations of same. You can’t listen to this music without tripping over a Tinkertoy pile of them, whether in the endearingly helpless way Linkous wears Young’s palette on his sleeve, or more obliquely in the way a song like “Comfort Me” invokes solo John Lennon without hardly trying (the strings and pleading tune would be oh-so-at-home on Mind Games). Then there are the guest spots by Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, and the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, all effortlessly absorbed into the general flow of influences. (Even the sore thumb of Waits’s lumbering “Dog Door” routine doesn’t really stick out, but serves as a welcome distortion break keeping the cellos and winsome vocals from getting too monotonous for words: Linkous is after a monotone poetry that can surprise and even transcend itself.) It’s a Wonderful Life is more than the sum of its reference points, but maybe not that much more—going a little deeper than thin-skin-deep, but never straying too far from its sensitive-weirdo sources or whispering gnomic sweet nothings you somehow already know by heart.
Sparklehorse has still come a good distance from 1995’s shrewd and vexing Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, more a brilliant term paper on the impact of Alex Chilton and Gram Parsons upon indie-rock than a freestanding album (although “Sad and Beautiful World” foreshadows everything the new one would be about). 1999’s Good Morning Spider both broadened and narrowed the concept, covering Daniel Johnston’s eccentric-innocent “Hey Joe” and nurturing a more calculating naïveté of its own: How to Build a Cult Record in 17 Quasi-Difficult Steps. While surely every inch as obsessive (and as meant to be obsessed over), It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t feel as premeditated: It communicates in the shorthand of music lovers who filter their experiences through the prism of their private Top 10 lists. The shape-shifting pensiveness of “Sea of Teeth” and “Apple Bed,” “Eyepennies” and “Gold Day” (“Stay with me a while/And evaporate in the sun/Sometimes it can weigh a ton”), exists and is pursued simply for its own sake. “Piano Birds” (“I got sunburned waiting for the jets to land”) soars like a burning airliner bound for the nearest cornfield; “King of Nails” mocks its own pretensions “to sink or to shine.” I could listen to this stuff till the cows come home—and with them, the rest of Sparklehorse’s dog and pony and bee and babies in the sun show. Linkous’s menagerie of sounds and fixations is as pleasurable as anything I’ve come across in ages, though the only question any of these beautiful sonic fetish objects makes me ask myself is: Where have I heard this before?