For Sparklehorse's first album in five years, Mark Linkous has more than just producer Dave Fridmann in tow. Fellow super-producer Danger Mouse lends production savvy and Flaming Lip Steven Drozd loans his talents to three of the twelve tracks on Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, the band's fourth. But regardless of collaboration, Sparklehorse is all about Linkous. Rarely does a singer/songwriter exhibit the vulnerability and preciousness that he does with just a single breath -- he sounds like he's barely hanging on. Danger Mouse and Fridmann know this, and their techniques to showcase Linkous's strengths are similar. Where Fridmann's handprints are in the background droning ambiance, Danger Mouse hangs apart too, with a sprinkling of odd samples and fine-spun keyboards. Their input colors the album but leaves Linkous with the burden of defining it.
The Sparklehorse sound is mostly made up of gloomily fragile vocals around a medley of meticulous instrumentation and experimentation. Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain expands and retreads Linkous's typical motifs, themes and atmosphere. Thematically and structurally, this record is Linkous comfortably being Linkous. "Don't Take My Sunshine Away" is catchier and more optimistic than his previous work, with its emotive arrangements and sweet, gentle harmonies. "See the Light" and "Return to Me" are languid, slippery, explorative ballads that use an assortment of players and instruments to convey their somber mood. "Ghost in the Sky" and "It's Not So Hard" pace the album forward with an upbeat yet dense driving force. Not a single moment on Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain would shock, surprise or stupefy. In a conservative world view, this is exactly what we would expect of Sparklehorse's evolution.
But art doesn't exist in conservatism. For a man who plays fractured so well, when is it reasonable to expect fractured to lead to something else? I can recognize the triumph of an artist perfecting a single idea, and Linkous embodies a universal coalescence of feelings described as fragility, confusion and guarded pessimism. But when you are defined as a singular entity on the broad palette of human emotion, there is limited opportunity for growth. When must Linkous let what he has successfully defined help him explore a new motif? This doesn't mean abandoning what he has built but using his experience to pilot a new and possibly even more interesting conclusion.
Linkous has certainly demonstrated potential, and his lovable and sympathetic, defeated nature can be captivating. We are anchored in his corner, waiting and hoping his next move will be the brilliant one we know him to be capable of.
Label: http://www.astralwerks.comSamples: http://www.sparklehorse.org/audio.html
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