by Michael Goldberg
Monday January 21, 2002
Saving 'Good Morning Spider' From The Black Hole
Taking another listen to a '90s masterpiece.
Sparklehorse is really one guy, Mark Linkous, who lives in an old farmhouse in Enon, about an hour west of Richmond, Va., and makes music that you can't quite nail down. He's the kind of songwriter who provides the most beautiful, soulful sounds and then accompanies them with lyrics like "Oh yeah, here come the painbirds." This is not party music. But what, exactly, is it?
Linkous' crowning achievement to date is the 1999 album Good Morning Spider, which earned him good reviews as well as such fans as Tom Waits and PJ Harvey. However, it vanished into the black hole of albums released on major labels that don't sell, although it is still in print. Last year Linkous delivered the third Sparklehorse longplayer, It's a Wonderful Life, which is a really good album only not quite so magnificent as Good Morning Spider, which includes the song "Painbirds."
Not The Normal Thing
The normal rock-critic thing to do is to write about albums that have just been released or are about to be released. This, I think, is based on the premise that there is a continuing stream of quality "product" coming out of the record company factories. There seems to be some kind of unspoken agreement between the record companies and the magazines/newspapers, 'cause you almost never find anyone writing about some incredible album that came out two years ago. "Old" albums only get written about when they are reissued with bonus tracks or some other incentive to get you to buy another copy of that which you already own.
Only most of the albums released are lousy, and even the really good ones aren't usually complete over-the-top genius works of art. So, yeah, there have been lots of good-to-great albums released during the past three years, but few of them match Good Morning Spider, which I keep coming back to. And I figure if I can't stop playing this 1999 album, then I ought to remind you about it.
I think I dug up my copy of Good Morning Spider sometime last year, reading news of It's a Wonderful Life. In anticipation of a new Sparklehorse album, I put on Good Morning Spider. And played it. And then played it some more. Put it aside. Played It's a Wonderful Life a whole lot from the minute I got an advance. Then, last fall, put on Good Morning Spider again. And, well, I've listened to it a few times a week ever since.
There are songs here "Happy Man," "Pig" that rock like crazy. But they rock in this weird way. They're noisy, and the vocals are distorted, and it feels like there's some dirt in the tracks. And just when you're hurtling along, slapping the dashboard or your desk or whatever's handy to the hyper rhythm of "Happy Man," the mood and pace shift, and you're drowsing to the ballad "Hey, Joe," an original by Daniel Johnston, not the old rocker covered by The Leaves and later Jimi Hendrix.
"Come On In" sounds like a lullaby, but, again, you can't tell if it's a request to a lover to take Linkous home from where? the hospital? or to God, asking to be taken to his final resting place.
Linkous does all kinds of things with his voice. Sometimes he whispers, sometimes he shouts, sometimes he talk-sings, sometimes he uses the studio to make it sound all distorted, and sometimes he double-tracks it. It's a likeable voice, a singer/songwriter kinda voice. A voice that you wanna listen up to when it says something, even if you have to strain to make out what it's saying.
There are moments when this sounds like fucked-up Neil Young, and songs that have some of the flavor of a strong Cracker track, or some classic Rolling Stones country-honk, or a more singer/songwriter version of Pavement. I tell you that so that you can get a sense of where Linkous' musical sensibilities lie don't go thinking any of this really sounds like any of that.
Good Morning Spider is a messy album. From the bits and pieces I've deciphered, it seems like some of it is about life and death, about loneliness and suffering, pain and the desire for happiness. And hope. Linkous holds out hope. Yeah, this is an album that takes on some of the Big Themes, the stuff we obsess about, the stuff that keeps us up at night.
"Hey Joe" is such an inspiring song. Linkous begins it with the line "Hey, Joe, come on Joe don't make that sad song any sadder than it already is." Later he sings, "...no matter what you did/ It can work out, work out/ No matter how you feel right now." And he ends with: "There's a heaven and there's a star for you."
That line, "It can work out, work out/ No matter how you feel right now," provides the kind of wisdom that can turn someone's life around. So often people let their feelings stop them from doing what they need to do. You feel discouraged, so you let that feeling stop you from taking the next step. You feel scared, so you don't push through that feeling and keep going. I know so many people who think they have to "feel creative," or feel the muse or something, in order to proceed, not realizing that if they just get on with it no matter how they feel soon enough how they feel will change. I love finding a line like that buried in a song.
And that's the kind of album Good Morning Spider is. Full of surprises, full of ideas and twists and turns. Full of drama, and the most wonderful music.