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Sparklehorse | It's A Wonderful Life (Capitol)
I've only managed to witness the live Sparklehorse twice, and I had the shock of my life. Perhaps, subconsciously, I went to the first gig as much voyeur as fan. Having been acutely aware of Mark Linkous' troubled life, I expected edge and emotion and power. What I got was a seeming intent to reproduce the recorded versions in such exact detail, that it seemed perfectly feasible that this was the best act of mime that could ever be. I was shocked because this seemed to me a prog-rock sensibility, and in conflict with the tension and nakedness of the wax versions. (So why did I return for more? Tour support Neutral Milk Hotel were fucking incredible). Then came the odd stopgap Distorted Ghost EP, and I began to worry for this album. But now, after having played It's A Wonderful Life several times, I understand that I can get all I should ever need from my personal relationship with Linkous from his records, in my lounge. What Sparklehorse has delivered here ensures that Mark Linkous joins the pantheon of Great American Songwriters. Name whoever you like, but he has created twelve astonishing little masterpieces as good as any by your (or my) choice. If only the line "I am the only one that can ride that horse, yonder" (from the eerie, almost sneering but beautiful title track) opened every album. There are weird synthetic twitterings and talk of "rooster's blood" and "poison frogs." The exquisite Eels-y Gold Day has sad flutes and strings effects, and hinges on the loved-up refrain "May all your days be gold, my child." The gritty little brat Piano Fire is propelled by flailing guitar, and features the first of two memorable guest appearances from PJ Harvey. Next up is the stately Sea Of Teeth. (Oh, these titles! Most on this album are deliciously strange, but can't cut it next to this year's best so far, that of C-Pij ?? Dolphins Are Cunts). Thudding bass, funereal drums, glistening ambience and a piano played with feathers; there is one truly arresting moment mid-song provided by just one single guitar note. Pure genius. Apple Bed is dubby and claustrophobic, and here is Nina Persson for the first of her two fine cameos. She must be delighted to have contributed to a song that includes the lyric "Remedy in a bloody sea / so breach the hive and smoke the bees." The twisted and abrasive grinder King of Nails briefly terrifies before a real highlight, Eyepennies ?? Harvey's second showing, and a song of impossible sadness. On Dog Door, things get chaotic. It's Massive Attack meets Skeletor meets Mr. Waits in madder-than-Mad-Tom-McMad mode, with a mechanical beat and death-ray guitar stabs. With the mournful More Yellow Birds it appears that the listener is party to deeply personal outpourings, as we join Linkous in blurred recollection of a childhood beach holiday, but there is relief in the majestic, strings-softened ballad, Little Fat Baby. A rolling Joy Division drum pattern gives a platform for the mellotrons of Comfort Me, where Linkous pleas "won't you come to comfort me?" over and over. Babies On The Sun brings the album to a quietly deranged conclusion, and is haunted by child's chatter and presented as a crackly, off-centre 78 that is mesmeric, inducing a sensation of mild intoxication. It's A Wonderful Life as an uninterrupted listening experience is something like the winching up to the crest of the first roller coaster drop, but the drop never happens. It is a graceful, elegant work, and that rarest of beasts in that every track kills. Lyrically, Linkous is in the process of creating a Nu-Goth poetry all his own; a language which is rich in observation, and in which he may feel comfortably enough veiled to get things off his chest. It's A Wonderful Life is a triumph, and to lyrically paraphrase its architect...as magnificent as a horse.

Tom Sheriff
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001

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