Album Review: Sparklehorse – Bird Machine

Mark Linkous' final album is a minor miracle, a loving testimonial assembled with devotion by those who knew him best

Mark Linkous was always troubled. But none of the pain and fragility woven through his distorted, ghostly songs could have prepared anyone for how his life ended. After his death in 2010, he left four perfect records and a gigantic void that persists for everyone touched by his music. Parts of that void are filled by Bird Machine but other parts seem larger, deeper and more impossible to fill than ever.

It’s so difficult to judge Bird Machine on its own terms. The personal difficulties his brother Matt, and sister-in-law Melissa, must have faced in assembling and completing this missive from beyond are unimaginable. But it’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from Bird Machine in any way disappointed, with its status as Linkous’ final record.

Sparklehorse - "Listening to the Higsons"

The devotion throughout to Linkous’ spirit and craft is breathtaking. It starts in 2009, when he booked studio time with Steve Albini, setting to work on his fifth album. But Mark Linkous was a particular creator, dogged in his pursuit of the Sparklehorse sound. He took the recordings he’d made with Albini and continued to work on them at home, bending them into shape. From there, nobody knew what had become of them.

Matt became administrator of his brother’s estate in 2012 and, with the help of his wife Melissa, set about preserving and cataloguing everything Mark had left behind. Painful, cathartic work. But the deeper they went into Mark’s archives, the more they realised how close he’d been to finishing his final album. Assembling a team of Mark’s closest friends and collaborators – including Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle – they completed Bird Machine, adhering doggedly to what they believed he would have done. Where Linkous’ vocals were too far short of complete, Lytle and Linkous’ nephew Spencer step in, as if holding him up.

Sparklehorse - "The Scull of Lucia"

But is it any good? That seems almost irrelevant when it’s a miracle it exists at all. Still, in as close as you can be to being objective, it’s brilliant. Anyone who loved Sparklehorse (I very much include myself in that group) will find it difficult to make it all the way through without being overwhelmed by emotion. That surfeit of feeling may colour reactions, but it’s easy to believe that this would have been Linkous’ masterpiece. These are some of his most brilliant songs, most immaculate melodies, most moving lyrics.

‘O Child’ is probably the hardest to listen to, Linkous singing to Spencer, warning him of difficult times ahead, but promising that the sun will always rise. In an interview with The New York Times, Melissa Moore-Linkous (Spencer’s mother) spoke of how desperately Mark wanted his godson to be happy and healthy. When a five-year-old Spencer’s voice echoes out of the static at the end of the song – a choice made by Linkous himself – it’s devastating.

Sparklehorse - "Evening Star Supercharger"

The restless, Americana-tinged ‘Evening Star Supercharger’ is classic Sparklehorse, gently loping while Linkous searches for meaning in all the pain and distress, comparing himself to a star that’s swelling towards its own death. ‘It Will Never Stop’ would have sat comfortably on Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, burying its hooky indie rock in torrents of static, daring listeners to dig through the murk and uncover the gold beneath. ‘I F*cked It Up’ is a reminder that Sparklehorse could rock like anyone. ‘Kind Ghosts’ is spectral and aching, peeling back the fuzz and adding electronic touches that recall Linkous’ work with David Lynch and Dangermouse on Dark Night Of The Soul.A cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s ‘Listen To The Higsons’ finds abundant common ground between the coverer and coveree.

Posthumous albums are complicated beasts, like grieving relatives who grip your hand at the funeral and insist that everything convenient is “what they would have wanted” without any idea if that’s true or not. But Bird Machine feels so idiosyncratic and heartfelt that even if Mark Linkous had never intended the songs to see the light of the day, you’d hope he’d be moved by the effort invested in making it as true to his spirit as humanly possible. From a listener and fan’s perspective, it’s a minor miracle.

Release date: 8 September 2023