There’s no getting around the inherent eeriness of Sparklehorse’s third album, It’s a Wonderful Life. Hearing Mark Linkous’ childlike warble intone “It’s a wonderful life/ It’s a wonderful life” over and over again in the title track’s refrain can induce shivers. Amplifying this is knowing that when Linkous recorded the tune, he intended it as a genuine statement of optimism in response to the press’s perception of him as perpetually depressed. Yet less than nine years after It’s a Wonderful Life’s August 2001 release, Linkous died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In effect, his dying act showed that while one may strive for hope, fight hard and finally attain it, retaining it is another matter entirely.

It’s a Wonderful Life was the start of something new for Linkous. After two critically lauded albums recorded largely alone in his Virginia home, he ventured to numerous studios with various collaborators under the auspices of producer Dave Fridmann. As a result, many of the eccentric sonic experiments and filler noise tracks that occupied Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and Good Morning Spider were exorcised (with the exception of the peculiar “Devil’s New”). The resultant album is more streamlined, the 13 songs flowing almost seamlessly. Along with the absence of the indulgent avant-garde left turns, largely missing are the barn-burning rockers. Instead, the record is primarily a series of autumnal, spacey ballads, melodically fragile and warmly layered. Yet, it still retains Sparklehorse’s patented weirdness. Esoteric instrumentation, rusty textures, clangy percussion, and scratchy effects merge to create an idiosyncratic ambience, with the songs shining through the haze. Likewise, Linkous’ typically altered vocals are clearer and more unaffected than ever, allowing for wounded moments where his voice shows its brittleness and cracks. In effect, the work bears the mark of its creator’s emerging confidence. Linkous was peeking out from his shell, allowing his art to stand on its own and be stripped of the armor afforded by the muddy tweaking of past records (this was the guy who, after all, obfuscated “Happy Man” with two opening minutes of clamorous fuzz to keep it from being a radio hit).

The record opens with what sounds like Linkous tinkering around in a dusty attic, the first notes emanating through the fog with a sampled guitar part played on a toy Mattel Optigan. A sweeping guitar strum then comes in, enveloping the toy-shop noodling, displaying a motif prevalent throughout the album: the organic instrumentation on display front and center while quirky bleeps and electronics fiddle about in the background. Linkous’ voice is a distorted whisper, painting images of animal mischief both surreal and mundane—dogs eating birthday cakes, bogs of poisoned frogs, a human body full of bees. Come the mantra-like chorus, Linkous embraces life without irony as cello strings bend around him. “Gold Day” continues this theme of hope, albeit in a less meditative fashion. Positively joyous, the song is equal parts lullaby and paean. Linkous sings comfortingly to an object of affection while a Wurlitzer piano, Chamberlin and Mellotron bleed together to form a soothing melody. In the background, electric birds chirp while Linkous sings of keeping skinny wolves at bay and desiring all his loved one’s days be gold. And yet, winding through this cheeriness is what sounds like an aching cello, showing the greatest happiness can still have a corona of sadness.

“Piano Fire” is a rocker. Linkous sits like a shaman in the midst of an electrical storm, the static flickering about him. An electric guitar is pounded on mercilessly as Linkous spouts vivid nonsense of charred pianos on coasts and tiny-handed circus people. In the surging refrain, PJ Harvey’s voice joins Linkous, floating above it like a siren’s call. It’s an energizing moment when the two harmonize on the hook of “How do you feel?/ How do you feel?

On its heels is “Sea of Teeth,” a down-tempo waltz built on a plaintive piano. Lyrically, Linkous uses astronomical visuals while conveying the impermanence of all things, but his delivery is one of reassurance rather than bleakness. Yet for the optimistic themes so far, it’s the fifth cut, “Apple Bed,” with which the proceedings backslide into a grim tone. Amid the sparse instrumentation, Linkous sounds beaten and dragged down. In the chilly chorus, the last vestiges of yearning rise between the cracks, and Linkous, along with the flitting harmony vocals of the Cardigan’s Nina Persson, plead for a doctor. Before a din of drums ushers the tune out, Linkous sings an epitaph-like stanza that could be the finest distillation of his bizarre wordplay: “I wish I had/ A horse’s head/ A tiger’s heart/ An apple bed.

The dour vibe continues for the next several tracks. After the subdued pandemonium of “King of Nails,” wherein a flurry of noise cocoons Linkous, comes the most haunting tune of the record—arguably of Sparklehorse’s oeuvre—“Eyepennies.” The song is elegiac and presents Linkous at his most vulnerable, surrounded by minor piano chords and metronomic drumming. Listen to it in a windowless room and the hushed quality of the song could cause you to unconsciously hold your breath. As near as can be discerned, the song seems to be about death and reincarnation, loaded with moribund references. Amid the creakiness, Linkous’ voice cracks in several places, supported by Harvey’s returning spectral vocals. Like the title track, it’s a shudder-inducing listen for the sense of finality the narrator conveys. Once it ends, the oddball clatter of “Dog Door” kicks in. Skittery with a rural industrial vibe, it would have a paranoid flavor even without vocals, though it’s none other than Tom Waits who barks his way through the ruckus. While the song is a near perfect marriage of Waits’ and Linkous’ styles, it feels like a speed bump in the progression of the album. Its placement seems arbitrary, perhaps born of Linkous being unable to let a collaboration with his hero fall behind the stove or be resigned to a B-side.

Thematically wrapping the album’s melancholic middle section is “More Yellow Birds.” In as much as “Apple Bed” is a relapse into depression, “More Yellow Birds” amounts to a struggle to regain lost footing. It’s an alt-country number that drifts along with a mournful violin while Linkous sounds almost nostalgic for sorrow as he bids it adieu. Oddly, the song loses some of its sadness near the middle, spreading pastorally while Linkous’ voice reaches a higher register as he muses about postmortem concerns for his body and if he’ll encounter a beloved pony in hell.

In some ways, the record should have ended there. The closing four tracks resume an optimistic point of view, and all of them are good, but none are as essential as their predecessors. “Little Fat Baby” is a charming lullaby on how all humans, regardless of the wretchedness they may obtain as adults, started as innocent forms. As an Easter egg for obscure songwriters, it also features some appropriation of lyrics from “Myrtle” by Linkous’ friend Vic Chesnutt. “Devil’s New,” a callback to Linkous’ netherworld dispatches, could have been culled entirely. “Comfort Me” is a fun little ditty without being particularly memorable. The closer, “Babies on the Sun,” has the dreamlike quality of a dustbowl carnival giving it an evocative sensibility, but it lacks the punch of previous album-enders “Gasoline Horseys” and “Junebug.”

In “Eyepennies” Linkous sings, “I will return here/ One day/ And dig up my bones/ From the clay,” a romantic sentiment that asserts everything is impermanent, and so death must also be temporary. Thankfully, Linkous left more behind on this mortal coil than his bones. His musical progeny will endure, and it is up to his fans to continually dig them up and ensure they continue blossoming in the ears and imaginations of new potential devotees.

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