Sparklehorse: Bird Machine [Album Review]

Bird Machine
ANTI- [2023]

To state the obvious, the arrival of a post-humous release from an artist that died all too early by suicide will often be tinged with the both the bitter and the sweet. Bird Machine, arriving 13 years after the death of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, has been lovingly curated by his brother Matt and Melissa Moore, Matt’s wife—both who’d played on Mark’s previous recordings—once they discovered the nearly finished recordings planned for his fifth album among the archive of recordings left behind. Over half of the album’s 14 tracks had been recorded initially with Steve Albini, while Linkous had done further recording at his home studio, Static King. They also had Mark’s notes about the song, the album’s title and song order as he imagined it, and sought to honor and flesh out these final musical expressions of the brother and inspiration as a labor of love.

Mark Linkous once described his approach to music: “Imagine a record as a galaxy, and all the songs as sort of little planets. And some of them are messed up and spinning off-axis.” In that sense there was always a haunted, surreal quality to the music of Sparklehorse, expressing the natural tension between the fragile, beautiful, melodic and noise, distortion and static which are part of the human dilemma in the modern world. The record opens with a trio of songs – planets – that outline the Sparklehorse universe. “I Will Never Stop” opens with a brief burst of distorted power pop that asserts “I stared down the sun, but the sun conquered my love.” In the gentle ballad the follows, Linkous wonders “How could I not have noticed the hammers that did me in?”, admitting that “I came to drink more whiskey than water,” but ultimately “I swallowed a phantom and forgot to breathe.” He asks of the “Kind Ghosts,” “where were you… when I needed you?” Then in the psychedelic pop of “Evening Star Supercharger,” Linkous hopes for “peace without pill, gun or needle or prayer appear/never found but sometimes near…” perhaps to quiet the “tracks of my fears/and the grinding metal gears from a carnival of tears.”

Linkous was working on another album at the same time as he was recording songs for the record he was hoping to title, Bird Machine, a collaboration with Danger Mouse that involved a host of guest vocalists and contributors, Dark Night Of The Soul. The wide variety of vocalists who contributed to the project – Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips, Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, Black Francis of The Pixies, Iggy Pop, Suzanne Vega and many others – are a testament to his influence. Danger Mouse completed and released the album months after Linkous’ death in 2010, and Linkous had sung “Daddy’s Gone” as a duet with Nina Persson of The Cardigans. He recorded the song here as solo, describing every artists’ challenge: “Daddy’s gone to go to work today/To make a little money, you gotta get paid.” In one of the album’s numerous sadder, quieter ballads, “O Child,” Linkous had perhaps sought to comfort his inner child, “I know it can be bad/ O Child, sometimes you’ll be sad,” with the thought that “here comes the sun.”

And while it seems that ballads and quieter pop songs dominate, the crisp, pop song structure of “Chaos of the Universe,” revels in the louder, noisier side of Sparklehorse, while it taps that longing to “belong,” with another nod to pop psychology: “don’t let it get you down.” A cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Listening to the Higsons” follows, with those epic “woah-wohs,” a song Matt remembers that Mark relished when they discovered it together; their cover here is even noiser and more distorted than the original. The album’s other major bash ‘em up rocker is the two-minute rock anthem to self-sabotage, “I Fucked It Up,” which Linkous assures he did it “real good.”

While the more energetic rock song bursts make an impact in the moment, it’s the darker, slower ballads that leave the last impression. In “Hello Lord,” the image of a wounded warrior: “Here I lay in this cruel sun/I’ve never seen such smoke and fire/I’ve never seen so much blood/lying here in the mire,” asking “how’s your children tonight?” Meanwhile in the country leaning lullaby, “Skull of Lucia,” Linkous suggests that “some are born to sweet the light/and some are born to endless night.” While the closing “Stay” shares the singer’s inner battle to remain in this world in the hope that “it’s gonna get brighter.”

That we get one more solid collection of music Sparklehorse at this late date is a gift, one that Mark Linkous’ family has made available to the world, offering his final efforts, songs crafted to honor the beauty the singer/songwriter found in the world, and the inner struggle that was part of who he was. The depth of melancholy is real, but the celebration of life’s bright, brilliant, sweet moments should not be overlooked, and this artist’s smart, exploration of these extremes is worthy of discovery and ultimately celebration.

“It Will Never Stop” / “Evening Star Supercharger” / “Chaos Of The Universe”

The Flaming Lips / Eels / M. Ward

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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