The concept of the multiverse has become one of science fiction’s hardiest tropes. Like time travel, it taps into the alluring fantasy that our lives may have turned out a different way, that maybe we’ve all got a shot at swapping out the sadder, harder parts of our reality. And given the sad and hard circumstances that surrounded Sparklehorse’s fifth album, it’s tempting to imagine how these songs could exist in a slightly different dimension, one in which Mark Linkous is still around to bash out “I Fucked It Up” on some festival stage or apply a more delicate approach to the more cosmic likes of “Everybody’s Gone To Sleep”. Alas, that’s not the spot in the multiverse we occupy. Instead, the 14 raucous, melancholy, acerbic and sublime songs of Bird Machine – now completed by a team led by Matt Linkous, Mark’s younger brother and longtime collaborator – arrive cloaked in tragedy and inevitably accompanied by questions about what shapes and trajectories they might have taken had Linkous lived to usher them into the world himself.
When the Sparklehorse singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on March 6, 2010 in Knoxville, Tennessee, he left his final work incomplete. Exactly how unfinished has long been a matter of speculation, with many fans presuming that it would never see the light of day. Indeed, given how much Linkous’s productivity had declined in his later years, it was fair to believe that only scraps existed. After all, his struggles with depression and addiction contributed to a lengthy creative blockage before he enlisted producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton to help assemble 2006’s Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain, much of which consisted of songs originally left off It’s A Wonderful Life five years earlier. His subsequent collaboration with Burton – 2010’s Dark Night Of The Soul, whose release was delayed until after Linkous’s passing due to a legal dispute with EMI – was so crowded with high-profile collaborators, it was sometimes hard to discern Linkous’s hand in its creation.
Yet this restoration job – which Matt Linkous says adheres to his brother’s extensive plans for the album, include the track sequencing – demonstrates no diminishment of confidence. Instead, everything about Bird Machine strongly suggests he remained the same restlessly inventive artist that he’d been when he called time on his band Dancing Hoods, left Los Angeles and holed up in a home studio in Richmond, Virginia to make the scratchy, scrappy music that became Sparklehorse’s 1995 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. Many of the songs here bristle with an energy that feels very much in step with Matt’s account of the enthusiasm his brother expressed about the work in progress, which he envisioned as a “straight-up pop record”. Of course, the bigger and sometimes burlier full-band performances Linkous captured in late 2009 at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago were followed by the stranger, sometimes more desolate pathways he pursued while working by himself in North Carolina at Static King, his longtime home studio (he had just relocated it to Knoxville at the time of his death). Throughout it all, Linkous was striving for a balance of the many opposites that had always animated his music: light and dark, simple and ornate, carefully controlled and gleefully anarchic.
Linkous was even making good on another ambition he expressed to his brother, which was to take some inspiration from Buddy Holly. True, “It Will Never Stop” may only have entered the Crickets’ repertoire in another of those alternate dimensions but it still opens Bird Machine with a pleasing burst of melody, fuzz and rumble. The song also signals a shift away from the more tightly constructed and sometimes constrictive nature of the Danger Mouse albums toward the more spontaneous feel of 1998’s Good Morning Spider. That said, Linkous’s scuffed-up voice throughout the album may be less of a throwback to how he sounded on Sparklehorse’s earlier albums than a matter of logistical necessity, Linkous having recorded only rough vocals at best.
Linkous may have later decided to present his vocals quite differently – as per the countless ways he could’ve ultimately deviated from his plans – but what survives here still works for the material, his voice consistently evincing both fragility and a fervent resilience. Though steeped in an ethereal atmosphere, “Kind Ghosts” comes to feels more grounded as the gently strummed guitar and multi-tracked vocal harmonies emerge from the murk. “Evening Star Supercharger” is even prettier as a gentle-hearted exercise in psych-country, with Linkous gently expressing his longing for “peace without pill, gun or needle”. The lyrics also see him explore the metaphor of how a dying star expands before it’s gone, though the richness of the arrangement and fullness of the instrumentation mean the song doesn’t feel as lonesome or prophetic as it might have. By contrast, “Oh Child” feels much more like the product of profound isolation. “I know it can be bad/Oh child, sometimes you’ll be sad”, he sings over what sounds like a battered barroom piano, the air of desolation only deepening when the song incorporates a recording of happy chatter from his nephew Spencer.
Though they were hardly rare in Linkous’s writing, the themes of despair and mortality he explores throughout Bird Machine inevitably take on a particular poignance. He returns to a landscape full of ghosts in “Falling Down”, a mid-tempo, country-tinged beauty that wouldn’t seem out of place on Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. In the hazily gorgeous “Hello Lord” he assumes the perspective of another possible phantom, this time a soldier who questions the big guy upstairs why it’s his lot to fight and die. But Linkous’s caustic sense of humour comes through sharply on Bird Machine, too. The punchiest Sparklehorse song since “Pig”, “I Fucked It Up” is a garage-rock rager in which he makes light of his own failures. There’s a similarly cavalier spirit to “Chaos Of The Universe” – a sketchier cousin to Good Morning Spider’s “Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man” – and his cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Listening To The Higsons”. The latter is one of several songs that he may have rightly consigned to B-side status, but it’s enjoyably ragged all the same.
There’s also something exhilarating about the grace and beauty he achieves elsewhere, especially given this artist’s tendency to slash his prettiest canvases (and again, he could very well have done the same if he had the chance). Two full-band tracks that include backing vocals by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, “Everybody’s Gone To Sleep” and “The Scull Of Lucia”, evoke The Band at their sweetest and stateliest. At the same time, they’re a reminder of how idiosyncratic Linkous’s songs could be, with the presence of the cheap synths and toy instruments that so often provided his songs with their off-kilter brand of charm.
The wobbly, warbling sound of the Casio SK-1 – one of Linkous’s most beloved pieces of gear, later bequeathed to The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd – is unmistakable in Bird Machine’s closer, “Stay”. While it’s still heartbreaking to hear Linkous promise that “it’s gonna get brighter” with the knowledge of what was to come, there’s more sunlight inside Bird Machine than anyone could’ve expected. And as much as these songs may be steeped in the pain in their creator’s life, the best music here occupies a special place and time, a metaphysical coordinate beyond that sad, hard reality we know too well.