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Bird Machine puts Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse talents on glorious display once again

"Bird Machine"

Release date: 08 September 2023
Sparklhorse Bird Machine cover
08 September 2023, 09:00 Written by John Amen

The songs that appear on Bird Machine were largely completed when Mark Linkous, a.k.a. Sparklehorse, committed suicide in 2010.

Thirteen years later, Matt Linkous (Mark’s brother) and Melissa Moore Linkous (Matt’s wife), alongside producer Alan Weatherhead and engineer Joel Hamilton, have brought Mark’s final works to fruition. Linkous’s lyrical dexterity, emotional depth, and gift for dark-pop hooks are once again on glorious display.

“Oh where were you / When I needed you?” Linkous pleads on “Kind Ghosts”, his weathered voice textured by phase shifts and generous dollops of reverb. “Evening Star Supercharger” brims with seductive melodies, bringing to mind various tracks from his trifecta, 1998’s Good Morning Spider, 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain. “Dreaming on the rails of angels dead drunk in the snow / and a train that never blowed / Took my legs and I bled out slow”, he moans, mixing highbrow diarism and meticulously crafted imagery.

“It Will Never Stop” showcases Linkous’s knack for child-like whimsy (“the crows with their arrows and their little bows / the rabbits with their carrots and their piccolos”). However, as with much of Linkous’s work, a notable paradox is at play. Setting Seussian lines within Strokes-inspired neo-garage values, Linkous evokes the promise of spring, while at the same time stirring a sense of foreboding. “Listening to the Higsons” similarly points to a lo-fi aesthetic, Linkous’s voice punk-inflected and eerily funereal.

With “Daddy’s Gone”, Linkous channels a mournful John Lennon or Bradford Cox, adopting a narcotized cadence as he laments having to go to work (“you gotta get paid”). Lennon, though, sculpted his “Sean songs” as insular odes, while Cox employed such narratives as “T.H.M.” (from Monomania) to metaphorically address his own brokenness. Linkous, meanwhile, finds a middle ground between lullaby and auto-catharsis, vacillating between a fairytale tone and preoccupation with his own worries (“when you raise your head from your pillow / don’t delay as people decay”).

“Chaos of the Universe” is built around a wiry guitar riff and languid melody. “Their chests swollen with light / Sweet dreams in your measureless flights”, Linkous offers, blending optimism and persistent anxiety. “Everybody’s Gone to Sleep” is exquisitely accented by Weatherhead’s mellotron part. Linkous’s gift for juxtaposing beauty and terror, as well as tranquillity and fatalism, is again potently evident. Closing track “Stay” is particularly memorable, given the way Linkous died. When he insists, “it’s gonna get brighter,” a listener can’t help but note the tragic irony.

Bird Machine is a resonant final word from an enormously talented singer-songwriter. While Linkous clearly struggled with depression, his music often feels as if it’s soaked in light and infused with love, even as it evokes melancholy and apprehension. Thanks to Linkous’s brother and sister-in-law, we can enjoy another Sparklehorse foray, Linkous’s voice brought back from the other world, one more time.

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