In 1996, while on tour with Radiohead, Virginia-born singer Mark Linkous, leader and often sole member of the band Sparklehorse, all but died in his hotel room after a massive overdose. He lay for several weeks in a hospital bed, undergoing operations to save what was left of him. Blanket … me, sweet nurse … and help me keep from burning, he sings, in Saint Mary. The song, like all of Sparklehorse’s masterpieces, lingers in this hospital bed, the supreme dark place, a cradle of dreaming where he somehow touches death from both sides at once. Indeed, this simultaneous dimming and brightening of consciousness defines Sparklehorse’s musical universe.
Many of Linkous’s songs yearn to nestle into very quiet places – deep underwater, hovering in mist and rain, sprawled out in the desert, on the moon or in the coldness of outer space: I'm so sorry … my spirit's rarely in my body; it wanders through the dry country … looking for a good place to rest. But there’s always a demonic counterpoint to this, so that his weary soul expects no quarter in its slumber: I would sleep in the fire, with snakes I have sired. From the title of his penultimate album – Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain – through the songs: with rocks in my dress, and smoke in my hair … I walked into a lake, to get some sleep down in there … will you promise me not to rest me out at sea, but on a fiery river boat that’s rickety, he searches for a place to sleep, and watches as legions of phantoms emerge from behind his closed eyes.
Fourteen years ago, after a brief run of mainstream popularity, Linkous awoke from his hospital bed and began to create more intentionally cultish and transcendentally strange music, knowing that he had his greatest work still to do. Today, perhaps, he has finished it. He has, at the very least, come as close as he ever will: a few weeks ago, he shot himself in the heart in Knoxville, TN.
1. American Suicide / Ghost Folk
The news was shocking, as suicides always are, and for faithful listeners the end of his musical output will always have come too soon. But, in the larger scheme of his artistic landscape, his death is something other than a tragedy. It is, rather, a deepening of the same sleep from which the music issues. His final act is prefigured by and in many ways completes his musical project: that of tracing the contours of deathly America, of the dead that inhabit America, of dying in America and America the dead. But in a way, this realization only increases its own mystery: where does death, let alone suicide, find itself in a nation founded on the mythic assurance of novelty and youth, the headlong rush of the immortal Frontier?
This suicide raises another unanswerable question: who is it that we have lost? Someone named Mark Linkous, or something called Sparklehorse? It seems rash and insensitive to answer with a band name, as opposed to a real individual who in the end must somehow have been more than the sum of his sonic experiments. But what has silenced itself goes beyond the human, under death to some other place, into the inhuman staticky whisper that distilled an impossible space-time of fevered innocence and rot, both always-already gone and only just dawning. Good morning my child, you’ve not got anyplace … to be.
Sparklehorse’s America is one with a lonely interior, haunted by specters of decay, windswept stasis, unheeded wisdom festering unseen to break and rot a whispered fate. But he’s not without company in this America: that of the subgenre that has burgeoned in the last two decades into what might be called ghost folk. At the nexus of alt-country, lo-fi, and rugged, raspy balladeering, its constituents range from Bonnie “Prince” Billy and M. Ward; to Band of Horses, Iron & Wine, and Bon Iver; to the more pastoral melodies of Fleet Foxes and Midlake; back to the Wilco of A.M. and Summerteeth, and forward into the more beguiling corners of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born; incorporating the starker, sparer ruminations of Vic Chesnutt and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, who meet on Sparklehorse’s Dark Night of the Soul, his final work, with DJ Danger Mouse and David Lynch (which we’ll come back to).
Sparklehorse was squarely at the vanguard of ghost folk in the mid-90’s, already cutting his Appalachian instrumental core – banjo, finger-picked guitars, violin – with a strong dose of synths, organs, vocal distortions, mechanical drum triggers, and heavy blankets of feedback and reverb, both coddling the timorous acoustic lines and breathing waves of plague across them, corroding his whispered vocals into a far vaster tide of digital sequencing and stray radio bleeps, static, groans, bees buzzing at the margins of the melody. Can you feel the rings … of Saturn on your fingers? Can you taste the ghosts who shed their creaking hosts? he whispers, and, as long as he keeps whispering, you’re pretty sure you can. But by the time he stops, something else has come into view.
2. The Dim Interior
What makes Sparklehorse literally more visionary than other ghost folk singers is his willingness to peer more deeply into dead America, to see beyond the drifting specters, to where new, living forms are taking shape: the tree you planted has become fecund … with kamikaze hummingbirds … wings of hundreds of beats per second, of people whose wings are just a blur. Whereas M. Ward or Iron & Wine channel the ghosts of Guthrie and Dylan, and the ghosts of abandoned lovers or the Holy Ghost, Sparklehorse sings as a ghost; his voice comes from the near side of death rather than the far side of life. Now, as Linkous finally slumbers in eternity, Sparklehorse’s music reaches us from a place “deeper than death” (as Jeffrey Eugenides once described suicide), maybe hell, maybe the Fountain of Youth, maybe both at once. As a ghost, he sees beyond ghosts, to a multitude that erupts, with renewed complexity, back into the carnal.
His music strains to overflow itself in the very site of its finitude, at the base of its unconsciousness, deeper than death. Please … doctor, pleeeeeeeease, he pleads from his hospital bed. Please send me more … yellow birds … for the dim interior, he pleads in another song, readying to go into this place, both graveyard and nursery, with only his horse for company. This dim interior is our leitmotif, the place we want to know about, Sparklehorse’s America. It’s a place of terror and solace, resignation and possibility: simultaneously the only place left to hide, and also the source of all that’s frightening, a womb of both Oedipal retreat and unpredictable fecundity, breeding uncanny juxtapositions of the grotesque and the comforting: in the bloody elevator, rising, for their first cup of tea (of the day).
Like falling asleep, lying ill, or readying to die, fading into the dim interior brings it with a gathering haze of non-differentiation, whereby the mind draws fewer and fewer moral and interpretative distinctions among things, approaching a state where it can hardly distinguish among them physically, where edges and borders fall away, or reveal that they have always been provisional. Here the creatures of the world breed together into one body that is also infinitely many. This un-differentiating “dimness” can, to the sufficiently wonderstruck, open up the combinatory powers of plastic dream: the demonic craft of fusing what sunlit nature endeavors to keep apart.
This is what Renaissance alchemists called Coincidentia Oppositorum, the merging of opposites. It’s the basis for the grotesque creatures Hieronymus Bosch painted under cover of medieval Christianity. Bosch’s chimeras, in turn, live on in Sparklehorse: I wore a rooster's blood when it flew … like doves, I'm a bog of poisoned frogs … I wish I had, a horse's head, a tiger's heart, an apple bed … she was born, with the wings of a hawk, but now she combs her hair with blood. “Sparklehorse” itself, of course, is Linkous’ supreme chimera, a compound of physical beast and trick of light: Sparkle, a fantasia, the irreducible awed shine at the core of all terror and poignancy, plus horse, whose breadth of American symbolism can never be put into words.
The journey into the dim interior yields the discovery of a nation as well as a self, the United States as states of being as well as swaths of turf. The world of childhood and of an America returned to its youthful, unstable origins come together, at once alluring and obscene, ripe for reinvention, suffused with nostalgia but never despair. Like Jeffrey Beaumont rooting through the dirt in search of a “real mystery” buried under his ostensibly placid North Carolina town in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Sparklehorse makes all of America seem alive and ready for adventure, but this life is a kind of death, or un-death, the seething presence of things that only children can see, but that maybe only adults ought to.
Rather than through a European esoteric lineage, Sparklehorse relates to his family of animal totems in ways that seem innately ritualistic, as if improvised rituals were the only means by which men could commune with nature, today as in antiquity: I drink my liquor from the palm, of a child who spoke in tongues … and smelled like sun; white blood of wolves must be drained; I closed my eyes and killed a cock; bring me some luck, little Juuuuuuuuunebug. Blood, feathers, bees, oceans, sky: these are the elements, and they return again and again, stewing in one another’s heat, recombining in an infinity of new forms, genesis and apocalypse in nature's very essence: seas will always boil, trees will turn to soil.
The American backcountry is our theater of alchemy and ritual, the place not only where these rituals are performed, but where they are invented, and not only where they are invented but where they actually work: the only things that I really need, is water, a gun ... and rabbits. In this regard, Sparklehorse is the heretic of ghost folk, riding off on his own into uncharted territory, where wandering and sleep, grotesquerie and nothingness, resting and restlessness, can never be separated. They combine to make Sparklehorse’s best songs at once intricate and urgent, bizarre but never alienating.
3. The Dark Night of the Soul
Frederick Jackson Turner opens his famous 1893 Frontier Thesis with the claim that, in penetrating the North American continent, the colonists lost their European identity and fell in with the land’s primal ways, exchanging their cultural inheritance for an implacable ethos of progress, striving, movement.
Sparklehorse’s dim interior is the corollary and hidden ground of this defining American myth. It’s the shadowy Doppelgänger of the sunbaked West – a stand-in for the uncharted, still-primal territory lying in wait when the fantasy of endless discovery can no longer be maintained, or even convincingly reconstructed in celluloid – a graven image of American death.
This location (or the image thereof) is the core of David Lynch’s films, and it’s the source of the ever-widening field of the American Surreal, which he, more than anyone, has brought into being. In Lost Highway, it’s the no-where desert at midnight, the flaming cabin, the naked woman disappearing over the horizon, and the “Mystery Man” wielding his camera like a weapon of satanic vengeance. This is where the legend of speed, gangsters and porn stars, the 20th century’s answer to cowboys and Indians, flickers and forms the forbidden image of its own terrifying, nonsensical authority, before warping and finally fading to black. But even then, the Highway insists on continued, frenzied adventure, even as it veers past what can be defeated, discovered, domesticated, or even enjoyed.
Lynch’s fidelity to the Highway's code of wandering has something of the quintessentially American naïve in it, enough to invite comparison with Sparklehorse’s ride into the unknown. But there is a difference: Lynch is all too knowing, and so his assumption of innocence smacks of irony. Sparklehorse was always an artist of the palpable and the all-at-once, while Lynch is first and foremost an artist of the fantasy and desire of cinema itself; the fact that he’s also a filmmaker is secondary. This self-referential twist means that Lynch’s art is fully aware of how the cinematic is constituted by that which it purports to hide – the hallucinatory frontier of action, romance, celebrity and detective work is not just circumstantially but necessarily founded on disorientation and horror.
Because of this, Lynch could only commit genuine suicide through cinema, raising the Mystery Man’s weapon to his own head (while, perhaps, Linkous could only achieve artistic fullness through real, physical suicide). Lynch’s filmic suicide arrived with 2006’s Inland Empire, his self-professed final Hollywood project and first to be shot on digital video rather than film. Here, his trademark interplay of reality and illusion curls back in on itself into an undifferentiated gloom where things can only appear; any exchange across a frontier can no longer have any meaning. Inland Empire no longer skirts the dim interior but becomes it, sucked into its own mystery.
Here at last, in his most disturbing creation, Lynch found the true seriousness of childlike dream, which he’d long evaded through his sophisticated irony. He also found himself about to collide with the imminently suicidal Sparklehorse. In 2009, hailing from two different reaches of the American Surreal, they merged under the auspices of DJ Danger Mouse's concept album Dark Night of the Soul. Curiously, mashup artist Brian Burton’s DJ moniker shares with “Sparklehorse” the same chimerical form (there were debates at the beginning of their collaboration as to whether it would be credited to “Dangerhorse” or “Sparklemouse"). Burton himself has an alchemical propensity for heretical fusion, starting with his blend of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album to create The Grey Album, which provoked a virtual inquisition from the label EMI to prevent its release. Dark Night of the Soul faced similar legal hurdles, so that at first it could only be heard in L.A. and Miami gallery spaces displaying Lynch’s accompanying photographs. It was not until recently, at almost exactly the time of Sparklehorse’s death, that news came through that the album will finally be available in stores this summer.
As a piece of music, it doesn’t really register. It’s too diffuse, filled out by a variety of vocalists who don’t seem to share a vision, even though Sparklehorse wrote most of the lyrics, including the two songs that David Lynch sings. But as a work of conceptual art, it’s brilliant, even a touch devastating: fusing two great American guerilla artists at the twilights of their respective careers, it’s a Dark Night for all Souls concerned, but also a reflection on the possibility of American goodbyes, and unanticipated rebirths, and the real abiding mystery that underlies both.
For us, the most immediately pressing mystery is: what becomes of the horse? It’s a question that Linkous anticipates, and leaves us with a question of his own: will my pony recognize my voice in hell? Will he still be blind or do they go by smell? As the dim interior fades into night, he wanders in a fever of synaesthetic confusion that seems eerily prescient, as though his horse had regressed into a pony at the same rate as he had regressed from adulthood through sickness, drug abuse, depression, maybe insanity, into the delicately recast form of a childlike seer, singing just loud enough into the dark to wake the spirits from their spirit ditch, for one last dance in this parking lot, as the sun burned down the West. His despair that I’ll never find my pony along the roiling swells remains thankfully unwarranted: Sparklehorse glimmers unflaggingly among the dead, no matter who manages to find what, and no matter what remains forever lost.
This is what finally allows us to say: