“I kept wondering what his head space was when he made these songs — ‘Did he like these songs? Is he into this? Would he even want me to sing on this?’” Lytle said, laughing. “How can you even attempt to assume the role of this super perfectionist, whose moods change like the weather?”
ONE NIGHT EARLY in the process, Matt and Melissa gathered in their home studio, where several of Linkous’s guitars and amps still line the walls. Hoffa, the archivist, had sent new excavations from the recordings, and among the disembodied vocals and out-of-tune pianos they spotted a familiar voice — their son, Spencer. “Wake up. I love you. It’s daytime,” he said in a voice mail message he left his uncle when he was 5. “Hi, Uncle Mark. What are you doing? I miss you. I love you. Bye-bye.”
The sound was shocking, as heartbreaking as it was heartwarming. Linkous had long sampled voice mail messages from loved ones, including the brothers’ mother, Gloria. Matt knew that Linkous had recorded Spencer, the godson he adoringly called “god boy.” But arriving at the end of “O Child,” a bittersweet and Beatles-quoting ballad about the way people can mistreat you, their kid’s voice was crushing.
“It was so hard, knowing that Spencer doesn’t have his uncle. They were so sweet together,” Melissa said, tears streaming down her face. “Mark used to worry about what it would be like for Spencer, with all the troubles of the world. He wanted Spencer to be healthy and happy.”
As the family worked to finish “Bird Machine,” Weatherhead suggested that Matt sing on a few songs, his voice slipping behind his brother’s because they sound so similar. After coming home from the studio late one night, Matt heard Spencer, now 19, singing and playing guitar. He had a better idea: His son should sing those parts. He sang on five of the album’s 14 tunes, sometimes joining his mother to support his lost uncle.
“There is something about a blood harmony, like the Stanleys, and the connection of Mark and Spencer. It was powerful to hear all this stuff,” Matt said, pausing for a long time. “We just wanted to keep it close. We did.”