Sparklehorse: London WC1 The Borderline

Sparklehorse return with new missives from the dark soul of Mark Linkous...

Mark Linkous, the twisted heart of Sparklehorse, has always been a man able to see the dark cloud beyond the silver lining. Diagnosed as having a chemical imbalance in his brain, he once confessed that he’s genetically predisposed to misery. Considering that in 1990 he deliberately tried to OD, while in 1996 he was temporarily paralysed (and wheelchair-bound) after spending 14 hours unconscious as a result of mixing valium with prescription painkillers, you can well believe it.

Tonight, he’s in town to promote his band’s upcoming, third album. With a healthy sense of irony, that’s called ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, and it’s fair to say it doesn’t constitute a massive change of direction. The music on it might be some of the most intricate and beautiful he’s ever made, but it’s also some of the most subdued and melancholic and, live at least, that makes for a fairly gruelling experience.

Linkous emerges at quarter to ten, resplendent in Gay Dad chic (woolly hat pulled down over his eyes, checked shirt tucked into his jeans) and proceeds to spend the next hour and a half guiding us through the emotional low points of his new record in almost total darkness. It doesn’t help that tonight’s show is virtually an album playback. The first five songs he plays are the first five songs on his new record, and the accuracy with which his band replicates its claustrophobic ambience makes you wonder why they’re playing live in the first place.

Not that the music isn’t intermittently wonderful – the stately beauty of the LP’s title track and the rattling momentum of ‘Piano Teeth’ both attest to what a great record he’s made. It’s just that’s exactly what you could be listening to: a record. It’s only when he diverges from his chosen path, and plays older songs that it actually begins to feel like a gig. ‘Hundreds Of Sparrows’ from their last album and ‘Hammering The Cramps’ from their debut are given taut, country-ish makeovers, and serve to break up the gloom – albeit, briefly.

We’re soon back on track again, though, weaving our way inexorably into the heart of Linkous’ darkness. And by the time we reach the finale (a desolate run through of ‘Homecoming Queen’), it’s relief more than anything else that overwhelms us. Sparklehorse might be responsible for brilliant records, but live they remain an acquired taste. A vision this black needs to be taken in smaller doses. And preferably, at home.

James Oldham