Song of the Week – Painbirds, Sparklehorse


In the late ‘90s/early ‘00s I often listened to a band called Sparklehorse. The “band” was the creative outlet for Mark Linkous, a southerner that wrote very beautiful and emotionally charged songs. He also died twice before he was 50. Yes, two times.

The first was when he was on tour with Radiohead in the UK. He took too much of something (no one knows if it was alcohol, drugs or both) and somehow blacked out with his legs pinned underneath the weight of his body. When the paramedics arrived and straightened him out for treatment, his heart stopped for some time – apparently from the potassium build up. Initially the doctors thought he might not come back, but if he did, he would surely lose his legs. He survived both ordeals, though he had to endure six months in hospital, confined to a wheelchair, while he completed his physical therapy.

His next Sparklehorse album, Good Morning Spider (1998), contains today’s SotW – “Painbirds.”

I’m not sure how I would classify this music. Nor am I clear about why I (we) need to try. In a 1997 interview with Joss Hutton for Bucket of Brains, Linkous says of “Painbirds”:

“I think the recording is really good – kinda getting into low-down style – like a military beat. I dunno – it’s kinda hard to describe – I think it sounds very interesting to me. I judge a lotta things like; is it gonna sound cool in five years.”

Well, twenty years later it still sounds pretty cool to me. The synths, tremolo guitar, and trumpet solo in the break render the song unclassifiable. It’s almost Tom Waitsian, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since they actually collaborated at one time. (Could “Painbirds” be a play on Waits’ “Rainbirds” from Swordfishtrombones?)

All that aside, some would refer to this cut as Americana. I get that too. It may have to do with Linkous’ rural Virginian roots. His soul is steeped in ghosts of Civil War Dixie, much like The Band’s. In fact, “Painbirds” was included on cover mount CD that came with an issue of Uncut magazine called Across the Great Divide – Music Inspired by The Band.

Lyrically, I’m not sure what this song is about. But I appreciate the simple beauty of lines like “Spiral down those hateful dears / Between our skins and burning spheres” regardless of what they mean.

In 2010, Linkous died for the second and final time. He went the “tortured artist” route and took his own life with a rifle. Although his commercial impact was limited, his creative impact was widely recognized by fellow musicians including Waits, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips.

Enjoy… until next week.

One thought on “Song of the Week – Painbirds, Sparklehorse

  1. I had a Sparklehorse flirtation a ways back. At the time it seemed he was channeling Neil Young, which is not a bad place to go, but I followed enough to see there was a lot else going on with Sparklehorse than emulation.

    But Linkous’ suicide means a dead end, for me. Give all credit to his music, which it deserves, but the cult of personality comes up short. I mean, he came up short.

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