Sliding from lullaby to hallucination and back again, Sparklehorse songwriter Mark Linkous spends “Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain,” in a dream world. It’s a world that has, at times, an air of naïve sleep, and others one of chemical interference. Consider the words “Up above the world so high/ Like a diamond in the sky,” a half-forgotten wisp in the middle of the song “Mountains”: at first blush, Linkous’s sweetly melodic coo refers to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” In the context of the album, though, those diamonds begin to take on shades of “Lucy in the Sky.”
For all its apparent strangeness, the album’s title is an apt, even obvious choice — well, obvious aside from the parts about the light years and the belly and the mountain. Everything here is emphatically dreamlike. Faces become sunsets, flowers, civil wars. Scraps of melody drift by atop distortion and static. And everything is edged with a dream’s uneasy mix of true and false: “They’re playing our song,” sings Linkous. “They’re getting it wrong.”
As in a dream, jarringly different elements collide with one another and somehow blur — a rock riff snags and lodges itself in the middle of the otherwise beatific “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away,” and the aggressive guitars of “Ghosts in the Sky” shake the listener out of “Some Sweet Day.” Interludes like these keep the album from drifting off into a haze, which is an impressive feat when you consider the eleven minute long, wordlessly somnolent title track. The album’s many disparate parts have a fluid, surreal unity. They’re tied together by the recurrence of certain motifs, notions that Linkous keeps gnawing at and revisiting: the faces in “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” and “Some Sweet Day,” the knives in “It’s Not So Hard” and “Knives of Summertime.”
The album ends with its most lucid moment, the snapshot-sharp “Galveston” — if the rest of the record swirls with hallucinogenic imagery, “Galveston” derives it power by combining the concrete and the elusive. The song finds Linkous lamenting a hometown and a beach and a girl (“I still see her dark eyes glowing”) long left behind. But there’s something more pressing at stake than nostalgia: “Galveston, oh, Galveston — I am so afraid of dying,” Linkous sings finally. What? After letting that line hover for several beats, Linkous finishes the thought with, “…before I see your seabirds flying,” but really, what does that clarify? Whence that abrupt urgency? What’s going on here? The answer feels just out of reach. Finally a steady bass guitar appropriates the vocal part, leading the song — and the album — off into the sunset. It’s as if the clear, perfect memory that had floated to the surface was again submerged. The song becomes cryptic only in its elliptical spareness.
This is as close as the album gets to a punch, a payoff, and it’s still not quite there. For all its fine lyrical and melodic moments, “Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain” never achieves the instant of definitive impact that a really great record requires. This isn’t to suggest that greatness demands bombast; “impact,” of course, doesn’t necessarily mean “volume.” “Dreamt” just somehow never feels consummate.
Perhaps the best comparison is to Wilco, a band whose music this record sometimes recalls. Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy can take banal materials — a phrase, an unpromising tune — and, tinkering with them before your ears, produce something hypnotic. Sparklehorse fails to do that. Like most dreams, this record is entertaining while you’re experiencing it and will lodge itself in your mind for the next several days. But it doesn’t add up to something that is, in the end, terribly substantial. It’s somehow incomplete; there’s something missing.
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain