The first horse turns up in the opening couplet. [I]”A murder of crows”[/I] ushers us out in the album’s hidden track. All around are mouldering remains of human activity: the buried pianos and clawhammers of Mark Linkous’ psyche, covered in creepers and yielding up their secrets only in part.
With this heavy payload of imagery, it’s a miracle that Sparklehorse’s third album of backwoods blues hasn’t ended up a junk shop of Southern Gothic clichés. Old dog Tom Waits even wades in, hollering like an incestuous uncle on ‘Dog Door’, while Linkous’ rusty cabin music creaks insalubriously beneath. But that’s just the first of many wonders of this exceptional record. It takes worn, weary scenes and makes them inviting. It takes a saccharine adage like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and imbues it with afflicted and affecting truth.
Not all of this skewed [I]joie de vivre [/I]comes from Linkous’ infamous brush with death a few years back. He collapsed, nearly lost his legs and saw things from a wheelchair. But his band Sparklehorse have, over the course of three magnificent records, always wrung the sweet from the bitter with great poignancy. Perhaps more significant is the fact that this is the first record Linkous has made drug-free.
Every moment of ‘…Wonderful Life’ thrums with micro-activity: Wurlitzers whirr, strings ache, and little analogue touches animate every piece. And then there’s the songs themselves, effortlessly beautiful, and made more hair-raising by backing vocals from PJ Harvey (‘Eyepennies’ and ‘Piano Fire’) and Cardigan Nina Persson. ‘Gold Day”s wheezing organ recalls Mercury Rev at their most fairground, and indeed, Rev producer Dave Fridmann brings his delicacy to bear throughout. Then there’s Linkous’ new broodiness: like Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, whose ‘Up With People’ single featured the chorus [I]”Come on, progeny”[/I], Linkous sees them everywhere, and wishes them well.
The blaring ‘King Of Nails’, in contrast, boasts ragged guitars, tearing through the cobweb silk of its predecessor, ‘Apple Bed’, the album’s only sinister moment ([I]”Please, doctor, please”[/I], it wails). Throughout, though, Linkous conjures up a riveting private world of lost plastic spades and snakepits, fat babies and [I]”piano birds”[/I] (the heirs to his pain birds?) – mundane and fantastical, troubled and tender. It’s a wonderful record.