Shivering in the Shadows
Mark Linkous had a long rock'n'roll history before arriving at his debut Sparklehorse LP. He'd fronted Replacements-esque rockband Dancing Hoods for much of the '80s, presiding over two albums written in hopes of having a hit. There are traces of that old working way on Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, the first record he issued since going 'solo' under the Sparklehorse name. Tracks like "Hammering the Cramps," "Rainmaker," and, of course, mid-'90s buzz-bin anthem "Someday I Will Treat You Good," all stack on crunchy multi-track'd guitars and punch out instantly-memorable, shout-along choruses.
Whilst those songs may've been the most noticed —in a broad, pop-cultural sense— upon Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot's 1995 release, they were the quickest to fade. They weren't the reason why Sparklehorse attracted a cult following; why icons like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Tom Waits became fans, friends, and collaborateurs; why this album resonated for years thereafter, eventually becoming a fitting eulogy for Linkous's profound talents when he committed suicide in 2010.
Dwelling quietly in the shade of the LP's alt-rock anthems are a collection of strange, sad, small songs; tiny tunes that've slipped through the cracks; fractured lullabies in which Linkous's faltering, hesitant voice is pushed forward, naked and shivering. Compositionally, the tunes are bare bones —skeletal guitar, occasionally drumbeats or keyboard adornments— but rich in spirit: Linkous creating opaque atmospheres with whirring tape noise, crackling radio static, and ghostly samples.
And That's Called 'Sad'
In the evocative "Spirit Ditch," in which a trio of guitars waltz around Linkous's double-tracked whispers (which intone strange, ad-hoc-poetic lines like "if I had a home/you'd know it'd be/in a slide trombone"), the veritable 'bridge' comes in the form of an answering machine message, in which an aunt details a bad dream she had; her voice sounding distant, disembodied, and eerie.
On the album's epilogue, "Gasoline Horseys," Linkous sings through a vintage microphone that makes his voice seem small and distant —the classic through-a-toilet-roll vocal— but he pushes the old-timey sound further with drifting flickers of radio static. Even when the song 'pushes' forward in a neat bit of Wizard of Oz-shifts-to-technicolor productional flourish, the extra oomph in fidelity only brings Linkous closer; never makes him bombastic. With an ever-increasing amount of echo swallowing his voice, he blithely sings "yes, your hair smells like sunshine today/gasoline horseys will take us away" over the doleful strums, and the album trickles to an end.
It's a fittingly-sad ending to an album that —anthemic alt-rock numbers notwithstanding— is rife with sadness. Recorded, often by himself, on a rural Virginia farm, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot is steeped in isolationism and, seemingly, depression. Tender tunes like "Homecoming Queen" and "Most Beautiful Widow in Town" are lovelorned and lachrymose; odes to loves lost and never-had.
And then there's the LP's defining track, one that would go onto become, for many, the encapsulate Linkous's music: "Sad & Beautiful World." As is often the way, it's the simplest, most direct song that sticks. Whilst its opening couplet —"sometimes I get so sad/sometimes you just make me mad"— reads like a rudimentary-rhyming joke in the cold light of syntax, hearing Linkous tenderly intone every syllable, in a barely-there, 4AM whisper, it sounds like a simple truism profound in its elementalism.
Record Label: Capitol
Release Date: August, 1995