Return from the dark side

After five years filled with personal struggles, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous resurfaces with a new CD

March 01, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

As of six years ago, the sadness surrounding Mark Linkous hadn't dissipated. Known to avant-garde pop fans as the virtual one-man band Sparklehorse, he had survived a near-death experience a few years before. In 1996, an accidental mix of prescribed antidepressants, Valium and booze caused him to pass out in a London hotel room with his legs bent beneath his body for 14 hours.

But after months of multiple surgeries and rehabilitation to regain use of his legs, Linkous rebounded and managed to release two well-received albums: 1998's Good Morning Spider and 2001's It's a Wonderful Life.

Still suffering with crippling bouts of depression over five years, Linkous pieced together his latest effort, the compelling Dreamt For Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, released in September.

"Three of those years were spent in a bad depression where I couldn't work at all," says the multi-instrumentalist, who plays Rams Head Live tonight. "What you hear and perceive is the real melancholy. The circumstances were so deep. It was paralyzing."

Given his recent struggles (drug addiction and personal and professional frustrations), it's a wonder his latest effort isn't overwhelmed by dark sentiment. Sure, slow, guitar-led tunes sprinkled with artful noises (check "Return to Me") feel melancholy. But the songs also convey a glimmer of hope. The arrangements are more immediate and accessible this time around.

"This record is a lot more poppy," says the North Carolina resident. "The one before was orchestrated. This one, I ended up with a lot of pop songs."

And initially that unnerved the experimental artist.

"I've always been afraid of doing pop songs because there's the danger of sounding contrived, trite and boring," Linkous says. "I was trying to make sure it still sounded like a Sparklehorse record.

And it does - only with a more streamlined approach. For Dreamt For Light, Linkous collaborated with Danger Mouse and Tom Waits. Each helped to push the album's layered, unassuming sound.

"Tom has been such a hero," he says of the singer-songwriter with the distinct smokehouse growl. "He was on my last album. Having him on a record is a dream. Danger Mouse did a lot of cool things with the editing. Things I heard in my brain he was good with helping me realize them."

For the progressive production of Dreamt For Light, Linkous looked to the past.

"I'm pretty bad that I don't keep up with modern pop or even indie," says the reclusive artist. "I listen to a lot of abstract electronic stuff or symphonic music. So from a pop music perspective, I had to go back 30 years."

Revolver-era Beatles and the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds helped inform the otherworldly feel of cuts such as "Don't Take My Sunshine Away" and "Getting It Wrong." Throughout the album, the lyrics abound with peaceful images - flowers and flowing honey. But for every delicate number, there's a searing rocker such as "Ghost in the Sky." The album - whose title was concocted from an old beat poet trick of writing words on paper and rearranging them - buzzes with serene atmospherics. But beyond the pretty noises are well-crafted songs that in subtle ways convey Linkous' growing optimism about life.

He says, "You always have to keep an element of light in there somewhere."

See Sparklehorse at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, tonight at 7:30. Ticket are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster. Call 410-547-SEAT or go to ticketmaster.com.

To hear clips from Sparklehorse, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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