Mark Linkous was a devotee of the work in progress. Under the banner of Sparklehorse and until his death by suicide in March 2010, the Virginia songwriter crafted a series of exquisitely fractured indie-rock albums that suggested a distrust of anything too polished, guided by an inherent belief that the silence and static were as crucial as the words and music. In order to achieve this balance, Linkous developed a meticulous process in his home studio that involved finding just the right busted vintage equipment to layer against his tender vocals, close enough to the mic so you could hear the breath between each line. With each successive album, the process became so intensive that it seemed like a miracle anything ever got released.
That is, until Bird Machine. As the first decade of the 2000s drew to a close, Linkous reached a breaking point and decided to change directions. The plan was to hit the studio with noted punk naturalist Steve Albini and bash out some simple tunes that wouldn’t drive him, or any of his collaborators, crazy, all in an effort to rediscover his initial spark. He revisited his favorite records by the Kinks and wrote music that would translate easily to a live rock show. “The songs are not quite as clever,” he said at the time, “and I’m not laboring forever over every lyric.” For an artist so clouded by doubt and perfectionism, pain and self-deprecation, the new approach sounded a little like therapy.
Instead, Bird Machine was destined to become the greatest labor of love in his catalog: Only now is it finally getting released, miraculously, 14 years after he started making it. Completed by younger brother Matt Linkous and Matt’s bandmate and wife, Melissa Moore, the record is composed of recordings Matt discovered in 2017, rounded out with guest appearances from Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Matt and Moore’s 19-year-old son, Spencer. With the same collage-like, bittersweet atmosphere as the best Sparklehorse albums, Bird Machine conveys an uncanny thrill—like revisiting an exact replica of some safe haven you frequented as a child. But where those records carried the unflinching vision of a single auteur, this one plays through a foggier, more distant lens.
In a sense, there was always a posthumous quality to Sparklehorse records, even when the man behind them was still with us. He often sang about and from the perspective of ghosts, a word he pronounced in a sweet, Southern falsetto that made its central vowel sound as soft as a muted horn. Early on this record, we get a whole song about this type of haunting with “Kind Ghosts,” where he surveys his past for any comforting omnipotence: “Oh where were you, my kind ghosts, when I needed you?” As with Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, many lyrics could be read like grim premonitions, but they are so consistent with the imagery throughout his catalog, it is mostly just a comfort. I am not sure, for example, what Linkous means when he sings about a “hummingbird and quasar,” but from him, it’s hard to imagine a more romantic phrase.
These familiar turns make Bird Machine a comfortable fit in Linkous’ catalog, and you can easily connect the dots to his past work. The essential tracks will largely come down to which side of his songwriting you connect with the most. The woozy psych pop of “Daddy’s Gone” also appeared on 2010’s Dark Night of the Soul, a record he was working on with Danger Mouse and David Lynch around the same time as this project. While I prefer that album’s version, a duet with the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, this rawer solo take has a more visceral quality, where imagery of a dog eating cake connects to the title track of 2001’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life. The crunchy alt-country of “Chaos of the Universe” draws a straight line to the burst of noise that interrupted one of his first great anthems on 1998’s “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man.”
When Linkous wrote that song, his major label suggested it could be the big single, which only made him more hell-bent on corrupting it with an MTV-proof wave of fuzz. Back then, the label might have been pushing Linkous to make something more like Bird Machine, where even burnt-out, droning lullabies like “The Scull of Lucia” feel equally aimed at solitary headphones and live, swaying audiences. This record, in fact, might boast Sparklehorse’s highest concentration of catchy melodies, from the seasick breeze of “Evening Star Supercharger” to the gospel balladry of “Falling Down” and “Hello Lord.” You can hear what he was drawing from those Kinks records, how their sunny choruses melt into his nightmarish kaleidoscope.
A constant through Linkous’ catalog was the pairing of his most optimistic lyrics with his saddest melodies, giving the sense of a constant battle to transcend the darkness. There’s a similar quality at play in these songs, where the heaviest, thrashiest performances are also the most beautiful. Maybe it’s because you can hear glimpses of a way out: the garage-band throwdowns Linkous had in mind, music he could play live and start shedding his reputation as some sad bastard holed up in a studio. These songs also happen to be the moments when Linkous gets most direct as a lyricist, trading his mystical, abstract universe for a more candid approach. One song is called “I Fucked It Up,” and it’s a blown-out, junkyard spiral of all the ways he’s sabotaged himself—personally, professionally, creatively. He knows it’s a cautionary tale, but through his distorted, gnarly delivery, Linkous makes it sound a little triumphant, owning his underdog story while it’s still his to tell. For the rest of us, it’s another stirring reminder that nobody could fuck it up like him.
All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.