Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Sparklehorse's It's a Wonderful Life.
This is the story of a true indie legend, of the man who committed suicide on the eve of his commercial breakthrough. It’s one of those albums where it only takes the first few notes for you to know it’s going to be good, just those opening moments of crackling tape-fuzz euphoria for your heart to fall peacefully into place.
The story behind Sparklehorse is equally and overwhelmingly as inspiring as what he decided to name his masterpiece, titledIt’s A Wonderful Life. The debut albumVivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, came in 1995. Not only did it garner regular play on the college radio circuit, but it was good enough to land him the opening slot for Radiohead on their 1996 tour of Europe. One night, after their show in London, Linkous overdosed in his hotel room on a mixture of heroin, anti-depressants, and alcohol. He collapsed on top of his legs, and wasn’t found until the next day, an event that left him wheelchair-bound for months and almost required amputation. Doctors expected him to never be able to walk again. But nonetheless, he achieved a full and complete recovery, and was inspired to make 1998’sGood Morning Spider, which was considered to be his commercial breakthrough and peaked at Number 30 on the U.K. Billboard charts, the highest any of his albums would ever place.
It’s A Wonderful Life, though, is unlike any other album in the Sparklehorse discography. While just as focused and upbeat as ‘Good Morning Spider,’ and just as weird as his 2006 major label debutDreamt for Light Years in the Belly of A Mountain, It’s A Wonderful Life inhabits a place of being entirely different from the turn-of-the-century guitar-rock of the times. Linkous cites Daniel Johnston’s mental-institution demos as his influence, “documentary music” that made the rest of the world’s pop songs sound silly and boring (see the 1984 compilation of demo reels titledRetired Boxer). It’s A Wonderful Life, therefore, is melancholy while jubilant, somber while optimistic. It is a record full of beautiful songwriting, too slow to be a hit, but too sweet to be forgotten. Album opener and title track "It’s a Wonderful Life" sets the tone right out of the gate, with bittersweet lines like “I’m the dog the ate your birthday cake.” ‘Sea of Teeth’ continues with reflections on the inevitable passing of time: “Stars will always hang in summer's bleeding fangs. Seas forever boil, and trees will turn to soil.” P.J. Harvey sings on a few songs, and Tom Waits lends a hand to "Dog Door", the only track that sticks out like a sore thumb. But "Gold Day" may be the sweetest cut of them all, with a melody of flutes and ambience, backing lyrics like: “Good morning, my child. Stay with me a while. You’ve not got any place to be. Won't you sit a spell with me? You've got diamonds for eyes. It's time for you to rise and evaporate in the sun. Sometimes it can weigh a ton...In silver piles of smiles, may all your days be gold my child.”
An album so beautiful and encouraging shouldn’t end with such tragedy. Sadly, Linkous committed suicide in early 2010, just before the release of what might’ve been the biggest record of his career, an album titledDark Night of the Soul, which was a collaborative effort between he and Danger Mouse, the famed producer who’s made arguably the best records by Beck, Cee Lo Green, the Black Keys, and others. David Lynch provided photography for the album’s artwork, while Dangermouse and Linkous made the music. Before its official release, Danger Mouse collided with EMI in a legal dispute and the album was postponed, with some suggesting that it would never see the light of day at all. This ran up the cost for some copies that had been leaked, with even a CD at the time going for hundreds of dollars. The book of David Lynch’s photography was being sold with a blank disc, and included a note that read: “For legal reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will.” Each song featured a different guest singer, from Julian Casablancas (of the Strokes) providing the lead-off single "Little Girl," as well as Iggy Pop (of the Stooges) and Wayne Coyne (of the Flaming Lips), even obscure indie mainstays like Jason Lytle (of Grandaddy) or Vic Chestnutt singing "Grim Augury." The fact that Chestnutt made it onto this album is of note in itself, after a car accident at the age of only 18-years left him quadriplegic. Linkous had tried to recruit him as part of the ‘Good Morning Spider’ record, but Chestnutt couldn’t make the sessions. In a 2009 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Chestnutt talked about being "uninsurable" due to his quadriplegia, and thus $50,000 in debt with medical bills. “I don't want to die,” he said. “Especially just because I don't have enough money to go back to the hospital." In that same interview, he said he’d “attempted suicide three or four times before,” and so it was on Christmas Day of 2009 that he was found dead, having overdosed on muscle relaxers. Nevertheless, their collaboration before the end was a true gift, a bright beam of light amidst the impending doom.
Ashort European TV documentarygives us a little bit of insight as to the man behind the music. A total gear-head, Linkous tours the cameras around his Virginia property strewn with pieced-together engines and rooms piled high with tape machines and guitar gear. He was a musician’s songwriter, who truly excelled in the recording process. The songs on It’s A Wonderful Life are flawless gems of introspection, but remain enraptured with just the right amount of strange air and instrumentation to keep you engaged.
The record’s worth has quadrupled since its release, with theoriginal pressingsfrom Devil in the Woods running between to $100-$300. A2012 reissueon 180-gram vinyl is just as hard to find having long gone out of print, but sells for closer to $50.