The weird and wonderful world of Sparklehorse was fully formed from the start.
I can’t recall what exactly led me to purchase ‘Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot’ back in 1995. Most likely it was via some article regarding Cracker, a band I loved and who had featured a song co-written by Cracker’s David Lowery and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous (‘Sick Of Goodbyes’) on their ‘Kerosene Hat’ album. Anyhow, once I had this CD in my hands, after trying to decipher the credits, haphazardly printed across a series of seriously weird photographs (think of a collaboration between William Eggleston, David Lynch and John Wayne Gacy), I found that the music contained within was even weirder. Weirder in a good way of course.
Mark Linkous was a Southerner who had tried his hand at stardom in LA in his band The Dancing Hoods in the 80s. Disillusioned and with a drug habit, he returned to his native Virginia to lick his wounds and recuperate. He was drawn to lo fi and “outsider” recordings by the likes of Vic Chesnutt and Daniel Johnson along with Tom Waits’ junkyard hollers while he was also in thrall to the raw view of America as portrayed in the writings of Cormac McCarthy. When Lowery moved to Richmond, the pair met up and began to work together with the aforementioned ‘Sick Of Goodbyes’ the first result (The Sparklehorse version is on ‘Good Morning Spider’). Lowery ended up playing on and producing several of the songs on ‘Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot’ under the pseudonym of David Charles.
From the start, with Linkous quoting Shakespeare over delicate guitar and subsonic burblings on ‘Homecoming Queen’, his intimate voice and the nursery like delivery invite the listener into a world where nothing is quite as it seems. It’s hypnotic but also disturbing. For every delicate rumination on the album, there’s a squall of punk infused thrash guitar outings. Sound founds and samples (a recording of his mother on his answering phone features on ‘Spirit Ditch’) are woven throughout while the vocals are often distorted, but when the fog clears and a song emerges it is, more often than not, brilliant. Several jump out as potential radio fodder – the heady thrashes of ‘Rainmaker’ and ‘Someday I Will Treat You Good’, the swamp like ‘Cruel Sisters’ (with its insidious nod to Credence Clearwater) and the more ditch like than ditch era Neil Young ‘Heart Of Darkness’ – if only radio stations used a grimoire as opposed to a playlist. Whether Linkous is hammering away or retreating into more delicate territory, his lyrics are profoundly obscure, almost like Burroughs’ cut ups. With two, three at the most, verses, the songs are like haikus composed in an opium delirium. Linkous sings of death and decay using macabre images and sets them in a strange and foreign land, peopled by magical horses and doom laden spiders. An ostensible love song such as ‘Most Beautiful Widow In Town’ is opaque, more concerned with the widow’s mother than the widow herself, and, who writes love songs about widows anyway? The unhinged ‘Tears On Fresh Fruit’ seems to dwell on a killer watching his victim being exhumed and the incredibly tender ‘Saturday’ is just about unfathomable although, when you hear the words sung, they can make sense in an incredibly solipsistic way.
Sparklehorse ran a short course. Linkous was a tragic character, bedevilled by various addictions and depression. A near death encounter shortly after this album’s release left him in chronic poor health but he went on to record another classic album in the shape of ‘Good Morning Spider’ with the remainder of his albums all well regarded. I love all of them but this astounding debut (the title inspired by a dream Linkous had about “about General Lee having a crude submarine back in the Civil War, and [in the dream] I could hear an old-time band playing inside, all distorted by the water”) stands out as my introduction to the Sparklehorse universe. It’s a weird universe but it’s wide and large enough to contain Linkous’s surrealistic nod to Bunuel’s visual imagery on ‘Spirit Ditch’ along with the magnificently raw ‘Cow’, almost a definition of Americana in itself with banjo, wheezing accordion and grungy guitars vying for attention as it limps gloriously along. Linkous signs off the album with the front porch acoustic strains of ‘Gasoline Horseys’, the first half sepia stained and scratchy and then given a full Technicolor delivery. It just about sums up the album. It’s pretty and you might reckon it’s a love song but listen closely as Linkous sings…
“The flowers of evil you left at my door. Set ’em in a broken glass and tasted my own blood.Yes your hair looks beautiful today, Gasoline horses will take us away. They charge forth with fiery manes and bellies full of clocks. Four ton deaf and dumb we poor old dogs of god.”
That, in itself, is the weird, wonderful and paradoxical world of Sparklehorse.