Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by Sparklehorse
I listened to the radio more in 1996 than in any year since. Evenings were invariably soundtracked by Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley’s Evening Session followed by Mark/cs Radcliffe and Riley (Mark and Lard) on Radio 1. I would typically hear the latest Britpop singles then go and seek them out with the minimal pay I earned from my paper round. I was 14.
One night Mark and Lard played a song that caught my ear. It wasn’t entirely different to the kind of music I was used to listening to — it was, after all, just guitar, drums, bass and vocals — but something about it was slightly strange and intriguing, sounding somehow less obvious than my usual tastes. It was ‘Rainmaker’ by Sparklehorse.
Rewind a few years. Over in Richmond, Virginia, guitarist Mark Linkous had returned from LA to kick a heroin addiction with the support of his parents. Contacts from his time as guitarist in nearly-made-its, Dancing Hoods, helped him get work as a roadie for Cracker, the band formed by former Camper Van Beethoven singer David Lowery. Using equipment he borrowed from Lowery, Linkous began home recording. Over time these home 8-track recordings morphed into more serious sessions under the name Sparklehorse. The resulting album Linkous named, somewhat ridiculously, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. It was released in 1995 and one of the singles taken from it was ‘Rainmaker’.
I bought ‘Rainmaker’ after hearing it on the radio, and eventually gave in to my curiosity and invested in the album. At first it didn’t quite click, but when you’re 14 and you’ve spent a full week’s paper round money on something, you persevere. I’m forever grateful that I did.
Album opener ‘Homecoming Queen’ starts with a finger-picked guitar before Linkous comes in singing a bastardised line from Shakespeare: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, rattling on magnetic fields”. It’s uncanny in the true sense of the world; both familiar yet strange. Vocally he is not what you’d conventionally call a ‘good singer’ but his voice is effortless, delicate and at times borderline ASMR. When describing it for a Pitchfork piece marking the anniversary of Linkous’s death, Nina Persson of The Cardigans said his voice “sounded so brittle, like it could just fall over and break any second.” She’s not wrong. Whether singing the quieter songs on this album or performing the more classic rock of ‘Someday I Will Treat You Good’, his vocals retain the same fragility.
The mix of quieter acoustic songs alongside those more driven by distortion is part of what makes this album so great. Everything about it is carefully balanced; the lush and twinkling ‘Saturday’ (supposedly the musical blueprint for Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’) follows hot on the trail of the awkward distortion of ‘Tears on Fresh Fruit’. This careful balance of chaos and calm is a recurring theme.
People talk about a good album being greater than the sum of its parts and I think that’s entirely true of Vivadixie… A perfect example being the tracks that are made up largely of ‘found’ sounds. ‘850 Double Pumper Holley’ is just a crackly tape of someone mumbling something about an 850 double pumper Holley (a type of carburetor. Thanks, Google.). ‘Little Bastard Choo Choo’ is little more than a recording of a broken toy train, and ‘Ballad Of A Cold Lost Marble’ is the sound of a damaged guitar amplifier and a repeated hammering of distortion. I’m not being flippant when I say that there is objectively little-to-no musical value in these tracks when played independently. However, in the context of this album they make perfect sense. The crackly tape of ‘850 Double Pumper Holley’ foretells Linkous’s use of a similarly crackly taped voicemail from his mother as an alternative to a guitar lead in ‘Spirit Ditch’ to great effect. ‘Little Bastard Choo Choo’ follows the extended outro of ‘Cow’ seamlessly and ties up side A of the album, while the rhythm of ‘Balad Of A Cold Lost Marble’ echoes that of ‘Tears on Fresh Fruit’ while its lack of melody only heightens the impact felt by the radio-friendly ‘Someday I Will Treat You Good’ that follows. Everything is intentional. Everything fits. It took me repeated listens to find this balance, but when it came together it was a joy.
Lyrically this album mirrors the pattern of loud/quiet and chaos/calm by flowing between the nonsensical and cryptic, and the literal and narrative. Some songs make very little sense, while others like Saturday, flit from cryptic to lucid within one song: “You are a car. You are a hospital”, sings Linkous. “I’d walk to hell and back to see you smile on Saturday”. Just as the noise of found sounds heightens the melodies that follow, for me the obscurity of some of the lyrics really bring the more literal songs to the fore. ‘Most Beautiful Widow In Town’ is the clearest narrative, with the clarity of the lyrics mirrored in the no-nonsense effect-free recording of a deadened acoustic guitar. It’s beautiful.
The album highlight for me, and I think the most representative of what makes this album so special, is ‘Sad and Beautiful World’. The coexistence of sadness and beauty as sung by Linkous at his most mournful, over three chords and the soft sliding country twang of a lap steel guitar. It’s simple, direct, and with a literal message that sums up the album — and life — perfectly. It’s one of my favourite songs of all time.
Discovering Sparklehorse diversified and influenced my listening. When I first heard it, I was listening to Blur, Oasis, and all things Britpop; all very primary-coloured, in-your-face 90s indie. Hearing Vivadixie… was like being taught a new language. It is a brilliant mixed bag of textures, found sounds, standard rock guitar tracks, and country-tinged Americana, all with a large dose of melancholia. It’s loud, awkward, quiet and chaotic all at the same time and somehow just utterly beautiful.
The musical language that listening to this album gave me has opened up so much. The quiet/loud of Glow Pt. 2 by The Microphones feels familiar and understandable after Vivadixie… The muted effect-free guitar of ‘Most Beautiful Widow In Town’ is all over Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. The chaotic mix of melody, noise and soundbites that only make sense within the context of the album is something I now enjoy in albums like In A Bar, Under The Sea by dEUS and Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices. Most of all, this album taught me about the importance of perseverance and repeated listening. We all love a hook-filled hit that grabs us instantly, but sometimes it takes longer to understand what’s going on. That’s Vivadixie… for me. The yin and yang of the calm and chaos, loud and quiet and cryptic and literal all took time to fall into place.
As referenced above, Mark Linkous took his own life in 2010. The circumstances of this and the career he had before and after this album are detailed in this great piece on Pitchfork from 2015. The impact he had on my life is largely confined to this album, but his legacy is far wider and far reaching. He went on to release five albums under the name Sparklehorse and worked with a wide array of people including Danger Mouse, David Lynch, Nina Persson of The Cardigans and PJ Harvey. He even played guitar and wrote songs with and for the queen of power pop, Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
Writing this 25 years after first discovering Sparklehorse, I’m eternally grateful to whatever elements of chance or fate led me to hearing Mark Linkous on the radio. I no longer listen to Radio 1, but I still get to cook dinner most evenings with Marc Riley on 6 Music for company. Perhaps borne out of my experiences as a teenager, I still buy music based on what gets played on the radio. Just last week I heard Riley play the song ‘Jogging’ by Richard Dawson. Again, it wasn’t entirely different to the kind of music I’m used to listening to — it was, after all, just guitar, drums, bass and vocals — but something about the lyrics and the way they sat awkwardly within the melody was slightly strange and uncanny and felt somehow less obvious. I was curious enough to buy the album.