Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse has said he wants to do to rock what Tom Waits did to blues -- junk it up, fragment it, mystify it -- and he's succeeded beautifully. Sparklehorse's new record, It's a Wonderful Life, shows how much Linkous has come to resemble his mentor in other ways as well. Like Waits, who has recycled his junk-blues-orchestra stylings over a series of strong records, Sparklehorse has a set of sounds and sticks to it. The band's basic mode is a midtempo ballad with layers of simple, haunting guitar lines. Another instrument, often a violin, adds an even simpler, sadder melodic touch. Some sort of static (often, it is literally static) eats at the edges of the tune and threatens to undermine it. And then Linkous' tentative, aching voice creeps out of the shimmer to deliver a cryptic lyric full of emotion. Lyrically, he also has a basic vocabulary. Just as surely as Tom Waits turns to dwarves, prostitutes and gritty street names, Linkous sings of horses and insects. Open and unpretentious in interviews, Linkous admits to borrowing from Southern writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, but his lyrics deserve to be read beside the heartfelt surrealism of Federico García Lorca, who also had a thing for horses and bees.
The new record reflects a new maturity. On earlier albums, Linkous resorted more often to rocking numbers; with It's a Wonderful Life, he's quit resisting his core balladic impulse. Although this guy can really rock, the fury at times has felt forced, a distraction from that heartbroken midtempo shimmer. Now Linkous has finally embraced what he does best and sustains it, but for a few apt outbursts, for an entire record.
Though this is the band's most fully realized effort -- and as fine a pop record as anyone has released in recent years -- Sparklehorse neophytes might start instead with vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. Although it's a more uneven record overall, a few of its songs, such as "Most Beautiful Widow" and "Sad and Beautiful World," communicate their emotion more directly and better prepare listeners for the strange, sad and beautiful world of Sparklehorse. Long may they run.