Album review: "Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present Dark Night of the Soul"

August 3, 2010

Various artists, "Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present Dark Night of the Soul" (Capitol) Rating: 3/4

More than a year after legal wrangling with Capitol/EMI threatened to make this all-star collaboration the first “great lost album” of the new millennium,  this busman’s holiday by Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, and director David Lynch is finally getting an official release.  Now that it actually is available as something more than a leaked download, it turns out to have a lot in common with other “great lost” efforts such as the Beach Boys’ “Smile” and Prince’s “Black Album,” packing a few moments of considerable pleasure and beauty, but generally looming larger in legend than it does in the actual grooves.

In fact, the biggest factor marking this collection of 13 songs is that two of the talents they showcase—Mark “Sparklehorse” Linkous, who co-wrote and co-produced the album with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, and Vic Chesnutt, who lends his vocals to the song “Grim Augury”—both committed suicide in recent months (Linkous last March and Chesnutt last December), and this disc comprises some of the last sounds these two well-regarded indie artists will release. Rarely has any album title turned out to be so direly prophetic, even if its relation to the lyrics is much more abstract, in the manner of the accompanying book’s set of very Lynchian photographs, than directly referencing any lyrical tales of spiritual crisis.

As one of his last statements to the world, the album doesn’t really do Linkous justice:  A big part of the appeal of Sparklehorse was the distinctive delivery of his songs, more so than the songs themselves.  Turning the material over to a wide range of alternative-hero vocalists yields the expected mixed results, with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Black Francis of the Pixies, and punk godfather Iggy Pop all sounding as if they’re on autopilot, while Grandaddy’s  Jason Lytle (a particularly strong presence on two of the best tracks, the funny dreams-of-glory anthem “Jaykub” and the cautionary tale of rock ’n’ roll excess “Everytime I’m With You”), veteran singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, and Julian Casablancas rising to the occasion in grand style. (Actually, the latter’s contribution, “Little Girl,” provides a stronger template for what the Strokes’ bandleader could do outside of that setting than anything on last year’s solo album, “Phrazes for the Young.”)

For his part, Burton doesn’t stretch far outside his comfort zone, other than favoring more organic, less electronic sounds—a direction he’s been moving in anyway—and, with the exceptions of the punkier Black Francis and Iggy tunes, honing to much slower tempos, the better to enhance the somber, creepy, and, again, very Lynchian vibes. In the end, only the aforementioned handful of Lytle, Casablancas, and Vega songs really stand out, and one is left with the impression that the album as a whole would have worked much better as the soundtrack for a film that unfortunately never will be made.