Sparklehorse - Good Morning Spider

CONSIDER THAT MARK LINKOUS technically died while touring the first Sparklehorse album, and the very fact of this sequel's existence might suggest a man with a cavalier regard for self-preservation. Upon hearing 'Good Morning Spider', however, it's hard not to suppose that two minutes of flatlining in London's St Mary's Hospital bestowed Linkous with revelatory quantities of perspective. Being alive, this confirmed depressive has apparently concluded, is more interesting than the alternative - and few other records this year can hope to rival '...Spider' for its ruddy-cheeked, weather-beaten, occasionally horizontal but nonetheless indefatigable, joie de vivre.

Like its predecessor, 'Good Morning Spider' works like an impressionist's paintbrush. Simple songs, derived from the most traditional forms (folk, country, the drunkest drunk punk) and crudely rendered by Linkous and his daunting armoury of arcane instrumentation (including '70s relic the Optigan, the Mattel Corporation's abortive proto-sampler), gradually assume supernaturally emotive qualities, thanks to their author's gauche yet profound lyricism ("The tree you planted has become fecund with kamikaze hummingbirds", wheezes Mark on 'Thousands Of Sparrows') and an ear for melody that could stir fossilised reptiles. Indeed, with pigs, dogs, wolves, rabbits, insects and a variety of feathered Virginian fauna all afforded roles of some significance, only dinosaurs have a valid excuse for missing out on this anarchic rock'n'roll zoo of an LP.

It's more extreme than 'Vivadixiesubmarinetransmission-plot'. The dustbowl road anthems rock with little sense of decorum and never the slightest hint of shame, the laryngitic ballads feel like they're on the verge of dehydrating into nothingness, while the amorphous instrumental excerpts serve to emphasise the incongruity of Linkous' impulses: to make the perfect pop song, then fry it within an ace of extinction. 'The Chaos Of The Galaxy' is a winning slice of new wave bombast but with its first half recorded from a vanquished radio receiver; 'Sunshine' suggests a one-legged man playing 'Across The Universe' on the harmonium with his stump. On 'Sick Of Goodbyes', Linkous comes clean with regard to his primary musical antecedent, seeing how it's essentially Neil Young's 'Barstool Blues', albeit with a drum machine. 'Pig' is a three-note thrash, featuring a great album for couplets' greatest couplet: "I want to be a stupid and shallow motherf--er now/I want to be a thick-skinned bitch but I don't know how".

Only The Flaming Lips bestride this surreal domain with comparable verve. But while the Oklahomans' symphonic visions dwarf Linkous and his homespun Americana, Sparklehorse songs are supremely rife with pathos, thanks to their composer's authentic dalliance with the dark side. The source of the narcoleptic lullaby 'Saint Mary' is self-evident ("Blanket me sweet nurse and keep me from burning... In the bloody elevator going to the bright theatre now"), while the closing 'Junebug' is the hopeful testimony of someone who has stood a little closer to the edge than is strictly advisable.

So, these 'Horse latitudes have us in their thrall once more. On the cover of troubled troubadour Daniel Johnston's 'Hey, Joe', Mark Linkous sings "Hey Joe/Come on Joe/Don't make that sad song sadder than it already is", like he's discovered his own requiem. The irony being, that with a first album substantially fuelled by heroin withdrawal and a second inescapably touched by a near-death experience, Sparklehorse make some of the most unambiguously edifying music you'll ever hear. 9/10

Keith Cameron