Album Reviews

Sparklehorse – Bird Machine

(ANTI-) UK release date: 8 September 2023


A posthumous, emotional and evocative farewell to Mark Linous, one of the most missed songwriters of our age

Sparklehorse - Bird Machine Posthumous albums always have the potential to feel a bit icky, especially when a life ended in as tragic circumstances as Mark Linkous did. After battling with both physical and mental ill-health for years, Linkous died by suicide in 2010, after his band Sparklehorse created four albums of beautiful fragility, plus a collaboration with Danger Mouse and David Lynch, Dark Night Of The Soul, which sounds almost portentous in retrospect.

Enough time has passed now to deflect any accusations of cashing in, and the biggest surprise about Bird Machine is that it sounds like a fully fledged album. The project has been overseen by Linkous’ brother Matt and his sister in law Melissa (who both played in Sparklehorse) – they were middle of curating a project where all of Linkous’ material would be gathered together, when they discovered some new material, an album title and the tracks in the order that they should be sequenced. Matt and Melissa put together a band consisting of musicians who had worked with Linkous many times in the past, beefed up the demos, overlaid his vocals on top, and Bird Machine was born. So whereas Jeff Buckley‘s posthumous release, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, sometimes sounded exactly like that – a collection of half-formed sketches – Bird Machine is that long-awaited fifth Sparklehorse album, a record of off-kilter alt-rock with the unique voice of Linkous adding an added emotional edge, knowing as we do, that’s he effectively singing from the grave.

It’s very much immediately recognisable as Sparklehorse, even if its less sad-core and more furiously punky than much of their best known material. One of the fully complete tracks that Matt and Melissa discovered, It Will Never Stop, kicks off the record with Linkous’ voice twisted by a vocal distorter, while the song itself is a bluesy, swampy rocker. That frenetic punky sound is also showcased on I Fucked It Up, while the fractured tenderness that Linkous was known for is on display on the lovely Evening Star Supercharger. The likes of Hello Lord or Kind Ghosts (with its eerie lyric of “where were you my kind ghosts, when I needed you?”) are also given an additional emotional weight, given what we know happened next to Linkous. For an artist who never really found commercial success, it’s surprising how much of Bird Machine sounds accessible and commercial. The swooning Daddy’s Gone could have been an outtake from The Beatles‘ White Album, while there’s a genuinely catchy pop song hidden underneath the shuffling, obtuse arrangements of Chaos Of The Galaxy.

It’s important to note too that, given the circumstances of Linkous’ death, some may be expecting a dour, depressing listen. The reality is quite the opposite – there’s hope and love imbuing these songs. Jason Lyttle of Grandaddy adds his harmonies to The Scull Of Lucia and it’s like hearing an old friend suddenly reappear when his vocals kick in, while the last track, Stay, ends with Linkous softly singing “it’s going to get brighter”, which it serves as a powerful ending to the record. Obviously there’s sadness, hurt and pain nestling in these songs as well – it wouldn’t be a Sparklehorse album if there wasn’t. While it may not hit the meteoric heights of It’s A Wonderful Life or Vivadixiesubmarine, Bird Machine does act as an emotional and evocative farewell to one of the most missed songwriters of our age.


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