Listen to this track by melancholy and moody musical banner as fueled by the creative engine of one Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse. It’s “Shade and Honey”, a song that appears on Linkous’ last album, 2006’s Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain. The song would also appear in another version in the film Laurel Canyon, sung by Alessandro Nivola.
By this time in his career, Linkous was a very well-respected musician, having collaborated with top flight artists ranging from Danger Mouse, to Nina Persson, to Tom Waits. The resulting music he created seemed to plumb the depths of the human soul in the quietest and most subtle sense, without self-aggrandizement or overblown sentiment.
Linkous was also known as a troubled spirit. This seemed to be confirmed when he ended his own life in 2010. So, like his contemporary Elliott Smith, the overall sound of his music suggested to many that his own struggles with mental illness had to be found in it. This is a common enough approach that many listeners take; to conflate the sound of something with its content, meaning, or its intention. This tune is very easily heard as a sort of elegy or anthem of loss. But, in listening to this song, I wonder if Linkous was actually trying to communicate the exact opposite.
Looking back at when this music was made, the 2000s was something of a grim time. It certainly did not live up to the hype which had begun to gain cultural momentum in the mid-twentieth century, when economic boom periods made us feel that the future couldn’t be anything but bright. We mythologized the hell out of it in our stories, TV shows, and even in our everyday language when talking about the coming new century. By the time the twenty-first century rolled around that vision was tarnished, revealed to be as viewed through an outdated lens all along. It’s no wonder that so much music coming out of that time was so insular and reflective, including Linkous’ Sparklehorse albums. This is perhaps another reason to question the wisdom of assuming that this atmosphere of melancholy was all about its author, and not a reflection of its author’s times.
In this respect, this song seems defiantly hopeful, even if the context of what’s being communicated is placed in what seems to be a rather gloomy aural setting. This song feels like an acknowledgement that having to say goodbye to people, places, and times is simply one of life’s inevitable truths. It is a hard truth, and that gloomy sonic setting reminds us of that. But with that truth in mind, we have a choice whether to lament it in anticipation of those losses, or to instead celebrate those people, places, and times that we love as we have them. In this respect, “Shade And Honey” feels like a reflection of a moment that is suspended, knowing that it will end, and savouring it to the utmost before that end happens. “May your shade be sweet” seems like a statement about those single, present moments that pass into memory as one is in it, and with the hope that the memory will be equally cherished when it passes from present to past.
In this respect, I don’t think this song is an elegy of loss any more than any other song that deals with being caught in a moment and watching it pass. To me, it simply concerns itself with the reality of our existence, and with time on a small scale, recognizing beauty in fine detail while paying attention to the passing of time. To me, this is amazingly hopeful and positive. And perhaps too, it teaches us a lesson about the limitations of looking to an idealized future as a sole source of hope, rather than finding that hope where we find ourselves, surrounded by people we appreciate and love in the present, and remembering them in the present after they’re gone.
The world that we know and cherish today, and all of the people, places, and memories we make in it will be shades tomorrow. As sweet as they may be to us then as memories, they will be disembodied. But when we live in the present, we’re not there yet. There is still time to connect with what and who we love as they are right now.
The future may be bright, or not. But in the meantime, what could be more hopeful than that?
For more on Mark Linkous and his approach to music, take a read of this interview with Mark Linkous at The Onion’s A.V Club.