When we hear music, we become emotionally invested. It’s a natural tendency, as sound seems to be able to penetrate our strongest defenses in a way that no other medium can. Death, love and sorrow pull at our heartstrings, creating sympathetic echoes that ripple along our nervous systems and dramatically shake our senses.
Certain musicians possess an extraordinary ability to evoke pained and joyous feelings from bare melodies and rhythms, and Sparklehorse-the Richmond, Virginia-based outfit led by musician Mark Linkous-was able to draw out these specific emotions with barely any effort at all.
He and various musicians built subtle and devastating indie rock that evinced a deep, rumbling musicality and garnered attention from such musicians as Tom Waits, PJ Harvey and Daniel Johnston. Often full of hiss, lo-fi melodies and a skewed sense of pop’s innate rhythmic associations, Sparklehorse’s songs touched on the miraculous smallness of the world around us, revealing the variable beauty and wonder contained within the nuance of our everyday experiences. Linkous’ fascination wasn’t with earth-shattering events but with revelations that came from an exploration of intimate emotional phenomena.
Born in Arlington, Virginia, in 1962, Linkous was thrust into a family of coal miners, a career he rejected while focusing on being a musician. His parents divorced when he was 13, and his teenage years were marked by a self-described “juvenile delinquency” that found him hanging out with a motorcycle gang when he was still quite young. He was then sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Charlottesville, where he attended school and fell into a habit of alcohol and drug abuse.
During the ’80s, however, he joined indie band the Dancing Hoods, and they relocated to New York City and then to Los Angeles in their bid to gain some measure of success. By 1988, their hopes had fallen apart and they disbanded, with Linkous moving back to Virginia, where he concentrated on writing new material under various names. By the time 1995 rolled around, he had created Sparklehorse, and there were many voices spread out across the band’s handful of records, with his the only constant. He would find inspiration and a fellow musical traveler in David Lowery, who would go on to form Cracker and provide a needed stability for Linkous.
Signing to Capitol Records, Linkous shared Sparklehorse’s debut record, “Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot,” in 1995. It was recorded with help from Lowery and some of his fellow Cracker members, as Linkous was serving as their guitar tech and roadie at the time of the album’s release. In an interview with The Telegraph in 1996, Linkous said that the band name was inspired by a dream he once had that was “about Gen. 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.”
Mixing new and old material (including some written only hours before he headed into the studio), “Vivadixie” feels like wading through viscous, waist-deep dreams lit by dozens of miniature suns. The effect is both narcotic and exhilarating, with Linkous acting as a spirit medium for the hectic and often-kaleidoscopic visions he conjures. The record opens with “Homecoming Queen,” a song that immediately thrusts the listener into a complicated and emotionally unstable landscape that’s a direct reflection of the lo-fi beauty that Linkous kept locked up in his head.
Altering his voice from a whispered invocation to an indie rock rattle, it seems that he allows these tracks to form separately from any specific direction. As they unfold, you got the sense that he is less in control of the music than he is being carried away by it. Lyrically, he mines some truly shattering themes, but everything comes together by some miracle and wears away the walls around your heart. His is a voice of loss and desperation and a quiet ache that never resolves. But it isn’t all darkness and shadowed intent-some of the songs, such as “Rainmaker” and “Spirit Ditch,” are straight rockers in their own unique ways.
This collection gives us a brief glimpse into the realm of absolute inspiration. “Vivadixie” is a bracing work of eclectic genius, the kind of statement that few artists can pull off with any sense of honest emotion. Much like the found sounds scattered across these tracks, our perception of these sounds is likewise composed of moments of fractured reality. On its release, it never really felt like it belonged with the indie rock masses with which it was so casually associated. It felt more like a stray bit of manic ingenuity, a ramshackle brilliance that left spots in your eyes.
That brilliance was dimmed forever March 6, 2010, when Linkous placed the end of a shotgun against his heart and pulled the trigger. He was 47 years old. And for those who stood high to laud his work and the powerful force behind his abject creativity, the world went immediately quiet. In the wake of that tragedy, the legacy of his work and its impact on his and future generations came to its full realization. We lost a great musical presence, but his records survive to tell his story. We may never know the pain and ache that he was going through, but he gave freely of himself-and it’s enough that he shared that much with us before he left this world.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.