After recording four of the more experimental and accomplished alternative albums of the past decade, Sparklehorse (aka Mark Linkous) should really be a household name. So why has this band remained in relative obscurity all these years? Maybe it’s the fact that Linkous lives deeply secluded in the Smoky Mountains and, admittedly, has to remind himself to leave his mountain top from time to time to record and tour. Maybe it’s his resolute desire for creative control over his music, which once resulted in Linkous allegedly taking a song (“Happy Man (Memphis Version)”) that record executives wanted to make a first single and burying it beneath so much static and distortion that the would-be hit became practicably inaudible. Or maybe it’s simply the case that Linkous’s surrealist imagery set to dead-slow melodies has never struck the same chord with listeners in America as it has with Europeans. For whatever reason, not nearly enough of us on this side of the pond are familiar with Sparklehorse.
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain is Sparklehorse’s fourth full-length release and features Linkous’s familiar mellow style with perhaps a bit more cheer than usual. “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away”, which borrows its chorus from Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine”, opens the album and walks the blurry line between lullaby and heartbroken lament so typical of Sparklehorse songs. Linkous has made a career of delivering sweet and sorrow like your favorite Chinese restaurant serves sweet and sour. “Shade and Honey” is a gorgeous mid-tempo rocker that showcases Linkous’s penchant for the surreal as he sings of horses with fiery manes, stars dying in chests, and a woman born with the wings of a hawk who now combs her hair with blood. It might be difficult, even impossible, to decipher the meaning of Linkous’s lyrical musings, but somehow the vibe of a Sparklehorse song manages to bring to surface an emotion that usually registers with the listener.
“Some Sweet Day” and “Mountains” are Linkous at his very best: barely louder than a whisper over the simplest and most beautiful arrangements you’ll ever hear. “Ghost in the Sky” and “It’s Not So Hard” are the obligatory barnburners that appear on any Sparklehorse release and while always wonderful also seem slightly out of place. It’s almost as if Linkous is teasing the listener by saying, “I could make that record, but I won’t.” And it’s clear he’d rather whisper than sing and mine the quiet spaces of his mind for his melodies.
Collaboration has always been a significant part of Linkous’s creative process. Artists as revered and varied as P.J. Harvey, Tom Waits, and Daniel Johnston have all spent time with him in the recording studio. So Dreamt being a largely collaborative effort doesn’t come as a surprise. Scott Minor and producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev), long-time friends and partners of Linkous, round out this particular incarnation of Sparklehorse. Tom Waits returns to tickle the ivories on “Morning Hollow”, a delicate whisper of a duet between Linkous and Sophie Michelitsianos. Perhaps the most surprising and fruitful collaborator on this record is Dangermouse, whose sampling, drums, and organ offer a new flavor and layer to several tracks on Dreamt.
Part of the critical knock on Dreamt is that nearly half the album has appeared, in one form or another, on other releases or projects. “Shade and Honey” was originally written for the Laurel Canyon soundtrack and sung by Alessandro Nivola, and a similar version of “Morning Hollow” was a bonus track on 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life to name just two examples. While critics might find some retreading disappointing after waiting five years for the release of Dreamt, it’s more important to note how strong these tracks are and how Linkous has managed to assemble them and create a record that has a vibe and soul of its own. In other words, when the man comes down off his mountain, don’t get caught up in trivial gripes, because you never know when or if he’ll come back down again.