Along with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse crafts strangely beautiful -- and beautifully strange -- music inspired by down-to-earth sounds as well as spacey experimentalism. But where the Lips are lovably loopy and Mercury Rev is arty and wry, Sparklehorse wraps deep-seated, often uncomfortable emotions in layers of metaphors and static. However, the group's third album, It's a Wonderful Life, is its most open and direct work yet. Whether this has anything to do with the fact that this is reportedly singer/songwriter Mark Linkous' first substance-free work is arguable, but regardless, it's a noticeably more focused effort. Though it lacks Good Morning Spider's sprawling brilliance, it's possibly Linkous' most effective, and affecting, collection of songs. It's also his most collaborative album, with co-producer and Mercury Rev alum David Fridmann adding just the right amount of warmth and weirdness and the Cardigans' Nina Persson and PJ Harvey contributing backing vocals that rival their work on Gran Turismo and Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Persson's sweetly empathetic voice shines on "Gold Day" and "Little Fat Baby," while Harvey's passionate style fits "Piano Fire" and the brooding ballad "Eyepennies" perfectly. Driven by burbling keyboards, drum machines, acoustic guitar, and piano, and populated with spooky, homespun images of babies, teeth, nails, and horses, most of the album consists of gently unsettling ballads like the title track and "Apple Bed." Edgier, poppier songs like "King of Nails" and "Comfort Me" don't sound out of place, but the stomping, clunky, Tom Waits-lite of "Dog Door," which actually features Waits on lead vocals, is a distraction. The album's sweet, yet too strange to be conventionally uplifting songs like "More Yellow Birds" and "Babies on the Sun" convey It's a Wonderful Life's message best: Even at its weirdest, just being alive is pretty wonderful. Needless to say, so is the album.