As I’m certain was the case for many of you, one of the hardest and most heartbreaking aspects of the passing of Mark was the fact that he’d been working on a new album, and that it had been reported as being close to completion. And now three years on, music that we had an expectation to love, to cherish, to add to our library of Sparklehorse sounds, remains unheard, at least for now. There is hope that this music could come out sometime in the future, but it remains to be seen when this might happen.
And then just a few weeks ago, Daniel Potter sent me a message about an album he’d just started listening to, and which he was very very impressed with. I checked out a couple of songs and was pretty much stunned, and purchased a digital copy soon afterwards. And I cannot stop listening to it.
And so for those of you that have been waiting so long for the next Sparklehorse album, I would like to offer up a suggestion. Immediately go buy a copy of John Murry’s The Graceless Age. John is not Mark, certainly. But he was a follower of Mark. And TGA is a big, brilliant, heartbreaking and utterly captivating record. It’s the first record I’ve heard since we lost Mark that has made me feel like there are other artists out there who are capable making the type of music that Mark once did. No album since Good Morning Spider has so completely drawn me in and hooked me. And The Graceless Age shares many of the hallmarks of Sparklehorse – recorded samples, snippets of conversation, noise and static overlaid on beautifully orchestral arrangements dense with strings, guitars, pianos and vibraphones. Or harder rock songs underpinned by unforgettable melodies, cut through with blazing guitar lines. Influences abound, and a song like ¿No te da ganas reir, Senor Malverde? sounds somewhat like it could have been a lost track from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in the vein of Us and Them.
Also, I think it’s not at all a coincidence that John, also a Southerner originally from Tupelo, Mississippi, sings about the fact that he can’t stand California,a place where Mark also didn’t fare too well, and which he also came to despise.
The music is grand, the words gut-wrenching. Because also not unlike Mark, John has had has demons and has struggled with them, and has also stared into the abyss, and lived to tell about it. Little Colored Balloons is an epic retelling of Murry’s heroin overdose and near death and it’s told in the possibly the most honest and rawest way I’ve ever heard in a song. Its piano-driven melody, structure and passion to me recalls the cinematic scope of a song like Springsteen’s Backstreets, but the person that betrays the narrator in this song isn’t a girl named Terry, it’s himself. It’s an absolutely devastating and climactic song, yet it boldly comes far before the end of the record, and afterwards, even more hurt and heartbreak ensues in the elegiac Things We Lost In The Fire.
And then we finally get to Southern Sky, another densely-layered epic and possibly the highlight of the album. It’s a psychedelic dervish of a song delivered in a voice that sounds like it could belong to the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. Over an increasingly apocalyptic tapestry of sound, the chorus:
She knows my face, my broken body
And I still see it in her eyes
The crucifix that bound our bodies
Underneath the southern skies
Trapped in a crowd, cheated by misfortune
I pray His Light will be her guide
Into my arms, these crooked arms
Underneath the southern skies
It all culminates a careening instrumental break where the song almost spins out of complete control, just to be masterfully reeled in for the final chorus.
Following this, and just when you think it can’t get any better, comes a song that could be a very close cousin to a Sparklehorse song, the hard-rocking yet gorgeous Penny Nails, which is of the same pedigree as Sparkehorse classics like Happy Man and (aptly) KIng of Nails. It’s here where some hope starts to emerge, like cracks of light shining through the black veneer of pain that overlays the record.
The album closes with a gentle, wistful take on Bobby Whitlock’s (Derek and the Dominoes) Thorn Tree in the Garden, where John’s deep baritone soars impossibly for the last word. It’s a wonderful musical metaphor that shows that this tortured soul can still triumph and rise out of the ashes. The Graceless Age is an instant classic of a record, an unforgettable account of one man’s journey through the darkness to the light on the other side. And it’s worthy of your time, your money, and your full attention. And I feel like I would be doing you all a disservice if I did not encourage you in the strongest possible terms to get it NOW…
Agree with every word. An awesome piece of music and heartbreakingly honest in a way I have not heard for years. Had also noticed the Sparklehorse connection and was delighted when he covered one of Mark’s songs at his gig in Brighton UK at the start of the year.