Sparklehorse's last full-length album Good Morning Spider was a musical rollercoaster. At times it was lo-fi and rollicking and at other times it was lush and tugged at the heartstrings. It swayed back and forth so much that it amazingly captured the tumultuous state that lead man Mark Linkous' life had been in at the time. At the time that I heard it, I was surprised that it had even gotten released on a major label, but happy that it had been released at all. I also hoped that Linkous could keep things together to make another album and wondered whether Capitol would keep him around.
As it turns out, both of those things did end up happening, and the surprising part is that It's A Wonderful Life is even better than his previous release. On the last album, Linkous had help from some friends, but this release finds him working with an absolute pile of huge names. Nina Persson and Tom Waits contribute vocals on different tracks, along with P.J. Harvey on several, and musicians include everyone from John Parish to Adrian Utley (of Portishead, for reminders). It's quite a smorgasboard, but first and foremost are the actual songs, and although there isn't such a drastic mood shift in the songs, there are enough ups and downs to still keep things very interesting.
The album starts out with the album-titled track "It's a Wonderful Life" and the slow, quiet track waltzes along with an off kilter optigan (an old organ that plays tones based on plastic discs inserted into it) melody and some light orchestration and little touchs of radio static and blips. The second trafck "Gold Day" is probably the most likely track to catch attention, as it's one of the most upbeat and friendly sounding. With Persson on backup vocals and a warm rock vibe, the track steps things up a notch and leads perfectly into the next track, in which P.J. Harvey joins in on vocals and things really start to rock out.
The album keeps up that gentle sway nearly thoughout as well. "Apple Bed" is another quiet, introspective (although most of the lyrics on the release are so obtuse, it would be a hard argument for anything but) track, while "King Of Nails" rocks out. In fact, only one track on the disc stands out like a sore thumb, and as much as I hate to say it (because I really like Waits), it's the collaboration with Tom Waits. The clanging, rumbling track breaks the entire flow of the album, and I've personally simply brought myself to programming it out when listening to things straight through. Fortunately, the disc revives nicely after that, including the bizarre closer of "Babies On The Sun" and a very nice hidden track at the end of the disc (that shouldn't have been hidden).
Lyrically, this album is probably the most cryptic release by Linkous to date. The title track is filled with all kinds of animal imagery, including lines like "I'm full of bees who died at sea" and "I'm the dog that ate/your birthday cake." Interestingly enough, those are actually two of the least bizarre lines on the album, which may or may not be metaphors for anything else. In fact, lyrically the disc mainly feels like a trip through the strange unconsciousness of Linkous, and although it's probably not going to get him a radio hit anytime soon, things fit in nicely with the eerily beautiful music. It's another solid effort from the group, and if you've been interested in them before but haven't heard them, this would be the best place to start.