Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

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Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art


Dark Night of the Soul

A human being flipped inside out drips the nectar of impurity, and exposes imperfections like a tree stump. The rings do not count age; they tally scars. Rusty keys and curious wills unlock pain pushed into internal drawers, but the silent, invisible emotions that seep out are dangerous burdens for anyone else to carry. The weight can crush the strongest of knees. Patches of flags on army shirts march in unison, but not all cuts bleed crimson as they search for the meaning of freedom. Life’s challenging journey is mapped out to be a long walk alone. Yet, the compasses of two hurt hearts often align to the west, and a tidal wave of emotions follows… overflowing both systems. The lighthouse flashing false promises of a soft landing ahead blinds many with longing arms. We’re taught to pledge allegiance to a god, a country, or a ring finger to achieve purpose, but in shaping an individual spirit, those arrows often miss their marks leaving us lonely. While an embrace of the everlasting may provide fleeting comfort in the sun, be careful in the dark night of a soul, and the black hole that sucks us into flesh.

The limitlessly creative minds of Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse and David Lynch have meshed to balance unstably on the teeter-totter between love and loss, peace and war, beauty and ugliness. The project, dubbed Dark Night of the Soul, is a musical and visual collaboration that explores the mystery of life. The songs are not cynical. They are not hopeful, either. Instead, they are surreal statements that expand the horizon of possibility. The still images accompanying the sounds are not vain enough to offer solutions. They are strange, often uncomfortable and paint a hauntingly abstract picture that both warns you and compels you to dream. The making of this multi-media art installation took nearly five years, and includes input from some of the biggest names in the music industry. Coincidence, confusion, triumph and, ultimately, tragedy traveled down this twisty road to fruition.

The very first word sung on the album is “Pain.” It echoes over a somber psychedelic arrangement of strings, bass and percussion. The song is called “Revenge,” and Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips peels back the layers of the emotion to explore the deep struggle within. “Pain. I guess it’s a matter of sensation, but somehow you have a way of avoiding it all. In my mind I have shot you and stabbed you through your heart. I just didn’t understand the ricochet is the second part. Cause you can’t hide what you intend. It glows in the dark. Once you’ve sought the path of revenge, there’s no way to stop. And the more I try to hurt you, the more that it hurts me.”

Iggy Pop’s ghoulish voice navigates a quick tempo of punk rock guitar and drums as he, too, sings about pain. “Good karma would not get you anywhere. Look at Jesus and his hair. Pain, pain, pain… bad brains must always feel pain. Justice, religion and success are fake, and the shiny people stink. Pretty creepy, pretty funny… I’m a mix of God and monkey. Pain, pain, pain… to feel pain is all that will remain.”

The powerful messages in these tracks began out of a mutual respect from two rising, but very different, stars in the music world. In 2005, Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, released the controversially groundbreaking Gray Album. The disc mashed-up a capella Jay-Z Black Album raps with instrumentals from the Beatles White Album. As SXSW rolled around that year, Danger Mouse was quickly becoming the big cheese. He was in Austin to promote Demon Days, the Gorillaz record he’d just finished producing, when his phone rang. It was Mark Linkous, the mastermind behind Sparklehorse, who is widely considered one of the greatest literary songwriters of his generation. Burton had always been a big fan, so the call from Linkous carried extra weight. The singer praised the Gray Album as brilliant, and before they hung up, Burton had agreed to drive to North Carolina to Linkous’s “Static King” studio to add his touch to stalled material that was more than three years in the making.

On the surface it was an odd combination… a DJ with Quincy Jones-like producing skills, complete with hip hop cred, pop sensibilities and a jazzy flair, alongside a demonized, folksy musician with a voice as dark and whispery as the subject matter in his songs. Linkous lived with his wife and dog, Smokey, in a sleepy town in the mountains of southern North Carolina. His deeply complicated mind, and damaged, yet imaginative, songwriting was drawing comparisons to Brian Wilson, and his dirty, fuzzy sound mixed with beautiful melodies in a Beatles kind of way. Linkous felt the pressure of being a musician, and his career was spent battling drugs and depression. While on tour with Radiohead in 1996, he took a massive overdose of Valium, and collapsed in a hotel room with his legs over his head. When doctors straightened his body 14 hours later, he clinically “died” due to the natural release of potassium that stopped his heart. They were able to revive him, but Linkous spent the better part of a year in a wheelchair.

Music was always his one true outlet, and he poured everything he could muster into his work. He released It’s a Wonderful Life just months before September 11th, 2001. The national tragedy left Linkous professionally paralyzed, as images of helpless people jumping from the World Trade Center played on repeat in his mind. He was in a deep rut when he made that call to Burton, and Danger Mouse had the musical chains to pull him out. “It was a very slow experience,” Burton says. “It was just about getting him back interested in the process again.” Their sessions revved new life into the songs, culminating in the 2006 release of the poetic and profound Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain. One of the tracks that didn’t make the album was called “Revolution.” Burton felt it was a “pretty special piece of music,” but Linkous shied away from singing it because he felt it was out of his vocal range. In fact, Linkous told Burton that he had lots of songs he’d written but wasn’t comfortable singing – and that became the genesis for Dark Night of the Soul.

The pair changed scenery to Burton’s home and studio in Los Angeles, around the time Danger Mouse began exploding onto the mainstream charts. Burton’s work with Cee-Lo Green in Gnarls Barkley won him two Grammys in 2006, and spawned the #1 selling single of the year, “Crazy.” With that energy as the backdrop, Burton and Linkous began bouncing ideas off each other. While their styles were different in many ways, they were able to produce a uniquely congruent body of 13 instrumental tracks. Along the way, they also developed a wish-list of musicians to approach about writing and recording vocals. Those who answered the call were a who’s who within the industry: James Mercer of the Shins (now with Danger Mouse in the super-duo Broken Bells), Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and Black Francis of the Pixies, among others. Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals converted “Revolution” into “Just War” – a song about guns and bombs destroying us all where he sings, “The last survivor crawling through the dust. There is just war, a contribution till humankind turns to rust.”

Linkous and Burton never set a release date, and vowed not to push the project. They also refused to give the musicians direction on what to write, and didn’t play them any of the other songs that would eventually make up the album. “All these people gave so much of their creative time and their hearts,” Burton says. “They poured themselves out all over this thing. It reminded me of why I do what I do.” As he began collecting the finished recordings, some interesting patterns began taking shape. “There was something special happening with all the subject matter and the way the album felt,” Burton reflects. “Pain, revenge, war, twisted dreams… the album sounded very visual to me.”

Burton’s eyes had trouble focusing on the scope of the imagery, until he sat down on a whim one night to watch David Lynch’s film “Inland Empire.” Suddenly, the picture became abundantly clear. He felt the surreal, psychological thriller had precisely the same visual dimension as the music he’d produced with Linkous and the other musicians. So he took a chance and sent the Academy Award nominated director a letter. “I just asked him to listen to it, and let me know if he had time to talk about an idea I had about it,” Burton says. A few days later, Lynch wrote back. The director was so moved that a visual narrative developed in his mind matching the moody rhythm of the music. “His photographs brought everything together conceptually,” Burton acknowledges. “The series of the pictures together, have the feel of the whole album.” Lynch took things a step further, asking to sing on the album. Burton and Linkous abruptly coughed up some instrumentals, and Lynch penned “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It),” and the track that ultimately led to the project’s title, “Dark Night of the Soul” where Lynch sings… “Distant bell ringing. But steps echo. No one on the streets. Callin’ out your name. It’s a dream world. Dark Dream world. Dark night of the soul.”

“Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse took ‘collaborate’ to a new, higher level,” Lynch says. “It was a thrill for me to be a part of this project. The music conjured still images and these pictures now exist, revealing the mood and feelings of fragments of the songs. Music is magical.” The resulting body of art featured the audio CD inside a 5,000 copy, hand-numbered, limited edition book with 50 original David Lynch photographs alongside the inspirational song lyrics on the adjacent pages. For more than a year, the finished product sat on the shelves due to a contract dispute between Burton and EMI. The music was leaked, and by the time the legal wrangling was over and Dark Night of the Soul officially hit stores, it only achieved modest sales. The Lynch images, meantime, were mounted on aluminum panels and began making the rounds at gallery showings around the world, featuring the music of Dark Night of the Soul blaring off their white walls.

Steady steps often lead to a loss of balance on life’s tightrope. By nature, its journey is unpredictable, and then, often without obvious reason, the cable gets cut. And, sadly, Dark Night of the Soul is no exception. The body of art does much more than lament lost love, examine motive and meaning and philosophize about a world without peace; it also serves as a eulogy to two of its performers. While waiting for the album to debut, the tormented life of guest vocalist Vic Chesnutt ended with an overdose of muscle relaxants. Then, in March 2010, just months before the release, Mark Linkous received what police have described as a “disturbing text message.” He then grabbed a chair and set it up in an alley behind his friend’s home in Knoxville, TN, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the heart – an ending eerily similar to the life of Elliott Smith’s. “I’m glad to have been part of his musical legacy,” Burton says, “even more, though, to have known him as a person and a friend. It’s always hard when someone does something like that. You wonder a lot, and wish they hadn’t. But he would want us to move on.”

Linkous has a lot of music out there that people still have to discover. He was working on a new Sparklehorse album before he committed suicide, and as fate would have it, Linkous did lend his voice to one track on Dark Night of the Soul – a duet with Nina Persson called “Daddy’s Gone.” It’s a hard swallow, and a grossly prophetic song. “When you lay your head on your pillow, I’ll be gone. I’ll be gone. Will you breathe your dreams to your pillow like a song? I woke up and all my yesterdays were gone. Close your eyes. Close your eyes until your dreams arrive.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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