The impulse to respond to music as an immediate outgrowth of its makers’ biographies can be a harmless parlor game. (Is “Ring of Fire” about June Carter’s extra-marital longing for Johnny Cash? Is “You’re So Vain” about Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger? Who was “Alison”?) But when a record arrives in the shadow of a musician’s suicide, whether just before or just after, that impulse becomes almost irresistible. It isn’t hard to understand why: In these cases, we look to the music not just to reflect the life, and its ending, but to explain it. It’s a dangerous approach, not merely Romantic but baldly expressionistic. Still, are any of are such pure or sophisticated aesthetes to have never listened to Pink Moon, Insecticide, or Basement on a Hill as collections of clues, intentional or unwitting, that might connect us to whatever forces led Drake, Cobain, or (probably) Smith to their final, fatal choices? And is it appropriate to think of suicide, in many cases, like a choice of any other?
Dark Night of the Soul, a collaboration between the late Mark Linkous (a.k.a. Sparklehorse), fellow producer/multi-instrumentalist Brian Burton (Danger Mouse, of Gnarls Barkley and The Grey Album) and a range of name guest vocalists (Julian Casablancas, Frank Black, Suzanne Vega) inevitably raises these uncomfortable questions. The project began with instrumental tracks that Linkhous, for whatever reason, felt uncomfortable singing over himself. As singers and co-writers were brought in, it also grew a visual element, in the form of a accompanying, characteristically oblique photographs by David Lynch. (The film-maker also “sings” on the album: weakly on “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It),” and incomprehensibly, under thick distortion, on the title track.) Lynch’s photo-book was issued in 2009 with a blank CD-R that implicitly invited buyers to complete the package with an online leak of the album itself, which languished in contractual purgatory. It isn’t clear to me what role Linkous’ death from a self-inflected gunshot wound in March played in its long-delayed official release two months later.
Despite Burton’s presence as co-writer, programmer and keyboardist, Dark Night of the Soul is musically of a piece with most of Linkous’ output. His mature production style, akin to Jon Brion’s and the Eels’ Mark Everett’s, was openly artificial, emphasizing violently filtered or distressed guitar tones and sudden shifts in drum sound: a studio-bound combination of individually “wrong” elements that coalesce into complete sonic pictures. Both principals’ Lennon/McCartney obsession is in evidence: Two songs draw on the guitar sound and progression of “Dear Prudence,” and a few string-fortified pop choruses aim at Wings-style grandiosity. The guests’ melodic and lyrical contributions aren’t uniformly effective, with less-distinctive singers (The Shins’ James Mercer, Super Furry Animals’ Matthew Durbridge) fading against the vivid arrangements. But Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle turns in a well-wrought lyric and curiously feminine vocal performance on “Jaykub,” a portrait of a rock-star-in-his-own-head, and Julian Casablancas’s loose phrasing and needle-sharp guitar solo interact winningly with Burton’s surf-flavored rhythm track on “Little Girl.”
These are among the album’s lighter selections, and frankly, they’re welcome respites from the harsher journey its title implies. There’s little doubt that Linkous’ creativity and depression were locked in an ongoing pas de deux, one in which he strove to intervene, titling a 2001 song and album It’s a Wonderful Life, partly in protest against journalists’ exclusive focus on his previous records’ downbeat side. Even though the presence of outside lyricists pulls against the most obvious autobiographical readings, Dark Night of the Soul sometimes treats these concerns with a self-awareness and gallows humor it’s difficult not to trace back to Linkous himself, as when Iggy Pop himself, rock’s paradoxically indestructible cartoon hero of self-destructiveness, is employed to intone “pain, pain, pain, I’ll always be in pain.” But there’s no saving irony in “Ricochet,” where Wayne Coyne’s gunfire imagery, though metaphorical in the context of the song, pull us out of the record and back into the world its co-producer chose – that questionable word again – chose to leave.
Nothing on Dark Night of the Soul is harder to separate from the tragedy that surrounds it than the penultimate “Grim Augury,” which sets Vic Chesnutt’s unmistakable Georgia wail against the loping rhythm of a vintage Optigan (one of the pre-Moog keyboards Linkous loved). A prolific and gifted writer-performer, Chesnutt, as most will know, conducted his entire public musical career while partially paralyzed from a 1983 auto accident. Linkhous also lost the use of his legs after a drug-related incident on an early Sparklehorse tour in 1996; he was wheelchair-bound for six month, and never fully recovered. The two were longtime friends: I can only assume that Chesnutt’s perseverance were some kind of supportive example for Linkhous, and can hardly imagine what it meant when Chesnutt overdosed, apparently intentionally, on muscle relaxants in December of last year, amid worsening health and financial woes.
On their final collaboration, Chesnutt pleads in vain with his lover not to make him describe “what went on in my horrible dream”: a warm holiday dinner scene “until I zoomed in,” revealing the family cutting out his partner’s baby with an “heirloom antler-handled carving knife,” while catfish swim “in blood and gore in the kitchen sink” nearby. Despite hints of a chorus (“I begged you not to make me tell you”), it’s less of a song than a misshapen monologue, with a truncated, mock-comforting ending that forces us to wonder at the relation of nightmare and reality: “Now sweetie, please promise me/that you won’t see/this as some grim augury.”
But on an album jointly decidated to Linkhous and Chesnutt’s memories, how else can we see it?