Confronted with the primeval forests of the New World, your average white guy with European roots tended either to go native, like Henry David Thoreau, or to see original sin skulking behind every tree, like Nathaniel Hawthorne. We sons and daughters of Woodstock have generally sided with Thoreau, celebrating nature for its unsullied freedom, lax dress code, and relative lack of bathroom restrictions. But, as The Blair Witch Project and Woodstock ’99 so eloquently demonstrated, uneasiness lingers, and the specters of death, madness, and overturned T-shirt carts still stalk the forest. Alone in the woods in the dimming twilight, how many of us have sensed something chilly and otherworldly—haunted even—flitting from tree to tree?

Spooky and beautiful, Sparklehorse makes the sound of ghosts whispering in the treetops. On its past two full-lengths, the band—well, Bremo Bluff, Va.’s, Mark Linkous really, with some help from his friends, who this time out include Tom Waits and PJ Harvey—has created some of the prettiest music you’ll ever be discomfited by. Linkous’ whisper of a voice and fractured, evocative lyrics cast a twilight spell over even the sunniest of arrangements and lend his every composition a sense of yearning—of grasping after some fugitive, revelatory light that lies just beyond the limits of plain sight. Even the simplicity of the songs seems like an attempt at purification, and the effect is not unlike that of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, on which the music is as stark as a winter landscape and the lyrics bear the weight of prophecy. With its haunted melodies, oddly out-of-time production values (think vintage recording equipment and analog sounds), and disquieting lyrics, the new It’s a Wonderful Life follows suit.

Like 1995’s brilliant Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and 1999’s erratic but nonetheless sublime Good Morning Spider, It’s a Wonderful Life is primarily a one-man show, with Linkous not only writing and singing the songs but also playing most of the instruments—including guitars, keyboards, samplers, and drum machines. Besides Waits and Harvey, the other dozen or so musicians include Sophie Michelitsianos and Nina Persson on vocals, Linkous stalwart Scott Minor on drums and various electronics, Alan Weatherhead on lap steel and Orchestron, Miguel Rodriguez on drums, and (surprisingly low-key) co-producer Dave Fridmann on bass, Mellotron, vibraphone, and piano.

Linkous has always been a versatile songwriter, and It’s a Wonderful Life covers a surprising amount of stylistic ground, from relatively unadorned piano balladry (“Eyepennies,” “Sea of Teeth”) to fuzzed-out distortion-mongering (“Piano Fire,” “King of Nails”) to flat-out strangeness (“Dog Door”). Unlike Sparklehorse’s previous discs, however, even the ravers on It’s a Wonderful Life are suffused with an aching fragility. On Good Morning Spider’s “Pig,” Linkous sounded like a man possessed by suffering and driven to exorcize his demons in an unrelenting torrent of distorted vocals. Here, the pounding drumbeat and distorted acoustic guitar that open “King of Nails” are offset by the tender shared vocals of Linkous and Michelitsianos, and it sounds as if the man’s pain and fury have finally been supplanted by something approaching acceptance. Indeed, several of the songs on It’s a Wonderful Life even embrace a modest optimism. On the title track, for instance, Linkous displays a subdued jauntiness: “I am the only one/Can ride that horse/Yonder/I’m full of bees/Who died at sea/It’s a wonderful life.” And on “Gold Day,” he sounds almost sunny, singing, against the simple backdrop of a tambourine, “May all your days be gold my child.”

Ultimately, though, Linkous’ vision remains apocalyptic, mystical, and doom-haunted. In the meditation on death that is “Eyepennies,” he sings, “I will return here one day/And dig up my bones from the clay,” but whether he’s speaking of the Resurrection or something altogether less holy is unsaid, and all you’re left with is some stark piano and the otherworldly vocal harmonies of Linkous and Harvey. Of course, salvation and damnation don’t always come in the next life, and on the propulsive, fuzz-fried “Dog Door,” guest vocalist Waits tells a story about a man who makes the mistake of trying to sneak into his house—after a late night out, presumably—through the dog door. Its chorus of distorted demon voices—”Pitchfork!/Crowbar!/Claw hammer!/Hot tar!”—makes it clear that, in this case, retribution need not always be the Lord’s.

Musically, Linkous owes an obvious debt to Neil Young. But despite the occasional echoes of Harvest—just check out the acoustic-guitar opening to “Little Fat Baby”—the tracks on It’s a Wonderful Life don’t evoke other songs so much as they do antique photographs, fading images of the long-dead gazing hopefully into a future that turned to dust ages ago. Indeed, the highest compliment I can pay to this weird and powerful album is that it makes the perfect sonic accompaniment to Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy’s classic 1973 study of darkness in the heartland of late-19th-century America.

The stark portraits in Lesy’s book—of dour farmers and their wild-eyed, hardship-maddened wives, coffined babies, and sullen, gun-wielding sons—tell a story of madness and more madness that is the secret history of rural America, and never have I heard the tale sung quite the way it is in the achingly beautiful “More Yellow Birds,” on which Linkous, his voice breaking, asks, “Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?” Or in the bizarre lullaby “Little Fat Baby,” a disarming parable about an unnamed gentleman who “got dragged by a donkey through the dirt and the myrtle” but who was “once a little fat baby.” Or in “Comfort Me,” whose suicide, with rocks in her dress and smoke in her hair, “walked into the lake to get some sleep down in there.”

Good records tell stories. Great records tell parts of stories, which is to say that they engender mysteries, asking more questions than they answer. With its latest, Sparklehorse guides us into the interior of those dark woods that haunted Hawthorne and still lie within us all. But more important—and this is why I think Linkous could be the most interesting (and hopeful) person working in the rock biz today—It’s a Wonderful Life suggests that there might be a clearing in the forest. Listening to Linkous, you can’t help but get the sense that it’s populated by marvels as well as by ghosts. CP