The poppiest moment on Sparklehorse’s album Good Morning Spider, “Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man,” is a study in contrasts. “Chaos Of The Galaxy” hews toward warm, burbling organ that sounds like a hymn before the pummeling power-pop gem “Happy Man” arrives in a cloud of static, as if the song is caught up in the netherworld between radio frequencies. The vocals fade in and out before finally sharpening into focus near the end of the second verse, like a Polaroid photo finally gaining clarity. Plangent guitars also unfurl behind a bracing, desperate chorus (“All I want is to be a happy man”), reinforcing the song into a sturdy rock anthem.
Yet Sparklehorse’s music aims to eschew convention, which is one reason why the accessible sheen of “Happy Man” is obscured. “It’s a really old recording,” the band’s braintrust, Mark Linkous, admitted to Swizzle Stick in 1999. “I think I maybe sabotaged ‘Happy Man’ on purpose because I thought the record company was going to make it a single.” (As it turns out, Linkous did re-record the song at the behest of PJ Harvey’s then-bassist, Eric Drew Feldman, although this bolder new version was still spliced with radio static.)
In the hands of many musicians, this deconstruction could devolve into a chaotic mess; however, smudging the boundaries between clarity and distraction was Linkous’ comfort zone. On Sparklehorse’s 1995 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, he interspersed crisp, lo-fi indie with spurts of noise: cassette flickering, a voicemail message under a vocal line, swirls of static, the chaos of a broken amplifier. Good Morning Spider — released 20 years ago this weekend in the US after dropping in the UK the previous year — found Linkous coaxing sounds out of unorthodox instruments, such as the children’s toy Speak & Spell, to create a self-contained sonic universe with its own internal logic, like the warped-folk soundtrack to a book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
“I have a lot of cheap, little keyboards and this octagon thing and this synth module that has a zillion different sounds in it,” he told Swizzle Stick. “A lot of the keyboards I got at thrift stores. I have a little Casio Sk-1 that has a built in sampler. My favorite microphone I found at the landfill. It was on a CB base station. I’ve got these wireless intercoms from the ‘50s from an auction from a dentist’s office.”
Good Morning Spider’s place of origin — it was recorded in a 16-track home studio in Linkous’ rural Virginia home — also influenced its vibe. “The luxury of time is probably what’s mostly responsible for my record sounding interesting,” Linkous told Addicted To Noise in 1999. “Because I can spend all day searching through the woods for a plowing disc to use for a hi-hat and then spend all day recording it and spend all the next day erasing it.” But elsewhere in the Addicted To Noise interview, Linkous admitted an even more salient nugget: that Guided By Voices is “probably the only real pop that I’m influenced by these days.”
In hindsight, Good Morning Spider’s eclecticism does indeed feel like a cracked-mirror take on GBV’s freeform rock approach. Structured moments — the oddball country-psych dirge “Sick Of Goodbyes,” which was co-written by Cracker’s David Lowery, and the Yo La Tengo-esque “Hundreds Of Sparrows” — give way to more evocative sketches driven by reedy acoustic guitars, haunting keyboards and occasional pops of orchestral color. The title track is an eerie interstitial instrumental with droning harmonium and a firm sense of finality, while “Junebug” is an ornate acoustic-folk rumination with twinkling percussion. The sound distortion on Good Morning Spider also comes to function like a defense mechanism, a cloak of protection to add distance between dark, deeply personal lyrics and askew music.
Good Morning Spider ends up coming across as a dimmer, twilight version of Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. Considering that Linkous’ life had changed dramatically between Sparklehorse’s first two albums, this was unsurprising. In 1996, while in London about to embark on a tour opening for Radiohead, he fell unconscious for hours after ingesting a nearly lethal cocktail of antidepressants and Valium he had obtained in Mexico. (In the Addicted To Noise interview, when asked if this overdose was accidental, he responded, “I think it was, I’m pretty sure it was an accident.”) After being discovered, he went into cardiac arrest and was technically dead for a few minutes before being revived once again.
Linkous’ kidneys had also shut down and, due to residual nerve damage in his legs, he had multiple surgeries. This overdose and lengthy recovery in a London hospital dominated the press narrative around Good Morning Spider, and was presumed to have inspired the album’s direction. However, the creative reality wasn’t that simple. “For awhile there, I was really scared that when I technically died — which I guess I did for a few minutes — that the part of my brain that allowed me my ability to write songs would be damaged,” Linkous told Rolling Stone. This fear wasn’t exactly paranoia or insecurity: In a New York Times interview, he flat-out said he “couldn’t write” while on the mend, perhaps because he “was on so much medication that I couldn’t think straight.”
As it turns out, only the scratchy punk rager “Pig” and solemn, chamber-folk number “Saint Mary” were influenced by his London hospital convalescence. “In ‘Pig,’ I was mad that I can’t have my old body back,” Linkous told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “And ‘Saint Mary’ is just about the nurses who were so compassionate there, and kind of the feeling of actually looking forward to going into surgery — being in constant pain I looked forward to surgery ’cause they could knock me out.”
Other songs from Good Morning Spider (including takes on “Sick Of Goodbyes,” “Happy Man,” “Maria’s Little Elbows,” and “Come On In”) existed well before the overdose. “I know that some of them were really relevant and hit a little too close to home for some people that had the early tapes, especially ‘Come On In’ and some other songs,” Linkous told Addicted To Noise. “My manager and some friends had those tapes and they kind of freaked them out … A lot of those songs, the lyrics were, I don’t know … vaguely precognitive in a way, I guess.” That’s something of an understatement in terms of “Come On In,” which uses a prayer as a jumping-off point for lyrics about death, although “Sunshine” also notes, “I lay down on the grass/And let the insects do their thing.”
Still, Linkous did his best to disabuse journalists of the notion that Good Morning Spider is a post-injury rumination. “I think if you lie in a hospital bed for three months in a foreign country with tubes running out of you, it can’t help but affect you in a way,” Linkous told the Los Angeles Times. “But sometimes I feel a little self-conscious—since I’m making a living doing this — that people just like my music because of the fuck-up things that have happened to me. I think that’s part of human nature, morbid curiosity.
“And I do think that [traumas] have inspired great art for so many years by many people, and if you can do that with something bad, you’re so lucky. And I’m lucky anyway, making a living without having to paint houses and wash dishes.”
Viewing Good Morning Spider as a linear response to specific trauma indeed reduces the album to something far too simplistic, almost to an insulting degree. “Cruel Sun” finds Linkous capturing the creepy-yet-whimsical tone of a Shel Silverstein poem (“There’s peaches/ In reaches/ With leeches/ At heart”), while “Maria’s Little Elbows” skillfully interpolates a snippet of the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” (“She said ‘I’ve really come to hate my body/ And all the things that it requires in this world'”) to flesh out the lonely world of its protagonist. Elsewhere, Good Morning Spider’s lyrics explore the sometimes fine line between comfort and despair in romantic relationships (“Hundreds Of Sparrows”), the lengths we go to do the right thing (“All Night Home”), and the uncomfortable chasm between outward tranquility and below-the-surface emotional turbulence (“Ghost Of His Smile”).
However, references to nature and animals abound, which hints at Good Morning Spider’s broader theme: navigating the grief and ecstasy (and unexpected curveballs) of the life cycle. Even Good Morning Spider’s title is a reference to the ways nature can turn on a dime, Linkous told CMJ in 1999. “In France somebody told us that there’s a superstition that if you see a spider at night, the next day will be a hopeful or good day. But if you see a spider in the morning, it’s gonna be a sad day.”
Good Morning Spider was critically acclaimed, but didn’t grace any US charts, a common occurrence for Sparklehorse, which was always far more popular in the UK. (In fact, Sparklehorse didn’t land on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart until the Danger Mouse collaboration Dark Night Of The Soul, which landed at #24 months after Linkous’ 2010 death.) That leaves Good Morning Spider to this day feeling more like an undiscovered gift rife with hidden treasures and secrets to decode.