Mark Linkous doesn't mince words when explaining the five-year gap between his last album and his most recent, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain .
"I got depressed really bad so I couldn't work," says the man behind the band Sparklehorse, matter-of-factly. "Three years gone."
Crippling depression has always plagued Linkous. Critics mine for deposits of it in his recordings and relentlessly query him about it. And for good reason--at times his mental anguish is as palpable as a wet pillow.
"I started doing [music] as an outlet to keep my head from exploding," he explains. But even so, he adds, the depression "can get to this point of no return, where you can't do anything and you just go down this vortex and you can't get out of it."
He pauses. "And unfortunately, that happened to me for a while."
In 1995, Sparklehorse released its debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot , a crackling, arty, gothic country album that won over college radio crowds in the waning hours of grunge. Just a year later, though, Linkous was dead. Luckily, his death--the result of an infamous overdose on alcohol and pills--lasted mere minutes. But the recovery proved slow and excruciating.
This life-altering experience inspired his 1999 sophomore release, Good Morning Spider , an album of exquisite emotional exorcism. Porch ballads and rolling rockers sweep along in washes of fuzzed-out guitar and strings, bone-rattling percussion and surreal lyrics delivered in Linkous' fragile whisper. Two years later came It's a Wonderful Life , a bewitching and cohesive collection of songs that sound like they were born from Southern mountains and forests and bogs.
And then, following his 2001 tour, came the great depression, which Linkous attributes to Sept. 11 and "a lot of other shit." For three years, he barely functioned, until finally, little by little, he crawled out of his hole.
A couple of years ago, Linkous began working on some new material, as well as tinkering with the finishing touches on a handful of songs he felt were too poppy for It's a Wonderful Life . He wanted to record a proper pop record and spent endless hours listening to "the pinnacle of pop songwriting"--mid- and late-period Beatles. In a lucky turn of fate, he also came across a copy of The Grey Album , DJ Dangermouse's groundbreaking mix of the Beatles and Jay-Z. A week later, Dangermouse was in Sparklehorse's North Carolina studio.
Linkous cited former tourmates Radiohead as a point of reference for his new collaborator. Like Yorke and Co., Linkous listens to a lot of electronic music, some relatively user-friendly like Autechre and some so abstract, they barely have a beat. "I wanted to make the songs short pop songs, but still have that real heavy electronic influence."
As co-producer on a good deal of In the Belly of a Mountain , Dangermouse brings twittering, synthetic texture to Sparklehorse's organic compositions. Linkous also worked with Austrian electronica whiz Christian Fennesz, whose "glitch" sounds "like if you took a Bread record from the '70s and buried it in sand and then tried to play it in the computer and then the computer caught fire."
The album's melding of electronic and acoustic feels natural and subtle, which Linkous believes to be a shortcoming. "I didn't push it to the limits of electronic," he says with resignation. "There are [also] a few tracks from this record that I don't feel I was done with, that I didn't articulate what I'd heard in my head down on tape at the end of the day."
But In the Belly of the Mountain , which also includes contributions by Tom Waits, achieves something more important than pop perfection. It speaks of a new destination for a man who's gone through hell, a place tinged but not suffocated by melancholy.
"It's meant to be optimistic," Linkous says. "I don't know if that's a survival instinct or what. But there's a lot of hope in it."
Sparklehorse plays with Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter at the Belly Up on Feb. 7. $15-$17. 858-481-8140.