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On March 6th, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse tragically took his own life in my small Southern town of Knoxville, Tennessee. He has carved himself a constellation in the stars that hang over this city. I know every time I pass the historic North Knoxville district in the future, the very part of town where Linkous ceased living, I will feel his presence and know that I am not alone.
It’s partly because of this that I must take a Second Look at Sparklehorse’s Good Morning Spider, arguably the group’s breakthrough album from 1999. One of our writers, Bill Delaney, took a Second Look at Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions briefly after Jay died, and in his piece, he asserted that he did not want to eulogize Jay Reatard. I must differentiate this piece from my colleague’s. It is half eulogy and half message to Linkous—a way to let him know that his music is loved here, other small towns, and big, oppressive cities, all the same.
Good Morning Spider was probably the first time I’d encountered such unspeakably sad music that was also quite enchanting in its devastation. For this, the album’s title is appropriate—I get an image of killing a spider on a dewy morning and subsequently sweeping the dead creature out into the yard. It becomes part of the earth. That’s a beautiful concept: death giving rise to life. But there is also a darkness about it, because you’re crushing the spider before it hurts you. This entire album can make anyone feel these conflicting emotions, and they come in waves that will either knock you down or pull you in even further.
In “Pig,” the album’s opening track, it starts with some gentle strumming on a guitar and some unintelligible vocals but quickly launches into a song with punk/grunge/riot grrrl ethos. Because of the song’s duality, using “Pig” as an opener was a savvy choice. Anguish is everywhere on the record, but it manifests itself in either fragility or grounded immediacy that borders dangerously on nervous breakdown territory. This song introduces the listener to both sides of the album.
“Painbirds” switches to that aforementioned fragility, a seemingly simple lo-fi song with a steady beat, but it possesses textures that you hear and discover with each listen: piano, cornet, strings, all decorated with twinkling and reverb. It all seems so very delicate. He adds another texture to the song by softly singing, “Here come the painbirds,” and in one instant, everything seems like it’s going to fall apart.
There’s a reason Good Morning Spider straddles the line between frantic and fragile and sounds like it could shatter at any moment, like a porcelain doll that has fallen and has been hastily glued back together—and that doll is propped up next to an open window. Really, this can easily be seen as an analogy for Linkous, since he wrote the material a bit before his near-death experience in ’96. That event influenced the final touches of the album with songs like “Saint Mary,” a nod to the name of the London hospital where Linkous stayed after his overdose. It’s a soundtrack for a somewhat destructive nearly-fallen man who was given a second chance, yet still never quite felt sure in his footing.
That uncertainty is reflective in tracks like “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man,” which is downright lovely in its pop-friendly melody, but it’s clouded by radio buzz and distortion for the majority of the song. It’s as though Linkous wasn’t sure about such a beautiful creation and intentionally “ruined” it. That doesn’t make the song bad—on the contrary, it’s possibly one of the greatest pieces on Good Morning Spider, with Linkous nervously shouting, “All I want is to be a happy man,” chugging away at an electric guitar riff, his voice falling deeper into the distortion, as if he were drowning. It’s one of those rare, special moments on the album in which the fragility and the angst meet, and for that, it’s possibly even more tear jerking than even the most whispery, acoustic moments on the record.
In songs like “Maria’s Little Elbows” and “Sick of Goodbyes,” the American South and Linkous’ Virginian coal mining roots come through, prominently featuring melodies, harmonies, guitar tones and chord changes quite typical of Americana, yet somehow they’re still uniquely Sparklehorse. Of course, on “Sunshine,” there’s the subtle collaboration with Vic Chesnutt, another fallen, anguished Southern soul. Linkous continues his homage to the South by including a Daniel Johnston-written track, “Hey, Joe,” which carries a lot of meaning now that Linkous’ family’s official death announcement ended with the song’s closing lyric, “There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you.”
Good Morning Spider might be heavily influenced by Americana, but what’s great is that it doesn’t restrict itself to one genre. It’s truly a palette of sounds. It’s one part garage, one part punk, one part folk, one part psych pop, and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Linkous was a diverse artist, influenced by a multitude of things, and he let those influences flow into every aspect of his work, being sure not to suppress anything. In many ways, this album is a result of that free-flowing, uncompromising honesty. Linkous stayed true to himself, but the album still feels cohesive. It’s one of many ways the opus is a gorgeous paradox.
Anytime an artist dies, we tend to look too deeply into their work, looking for answers. It can get clichéd, but how can we not do that with Good Morning Spider? Here, we have one of the most perpetually pained artists in recent memory that created one of the saddest, most delicate albums of the ‘90s. In “Saint Mary,” Linkous woefully requests death (“Please let me taste the clean dirt in my lungs and moss on my back.”) or recites the old bedtime prayer in “Come On In” (“If I die before I wake, I pray my soul to take”). While these aren’t exactly answers, they serve as windows into the heart and mind of Linkous, who never quite emerged from the darkness that enveloped him all those years ago.
A line in the closing song, “Junebug” goes, “Bring me some luck, little Junebug / the March afternoons / the sun and the moon.” I can’t help but draw the parallels, since Linkous died on a March afternoon, at a time when he was moving to Knoxville with Sparklehorse bandmate Scott Minor, trying to get a new start on his life. After receiving a text message with some bad news, he went for a walk, and he never came back. Perhaps the Junebug failed to bring him luck that day—I doubt anyone truly knows what happened. I know that he’s still here, forever living that line. Then again, what if he’s finally at peace? It’s like he sang in the song “Hundreds of Sparrows”: “My spirit’s rarely in my body / it wanders through the dry country / looking for a good place to rest.”
It’s entirely possible Mark Linkous finally found that place.