The Handsome Family – Twilight

Chances are, if you’ve heard of the Handsome Family, you’re familiar with their reputation for slightly skewed slice-of-life stories delivered with a bizarre lack of irony and deadpan wit. Although that’s largely an accurate appraisal, be warned. This isn’t the normal indie-rock irony made popular by pop-culture reference-dropping icons like Pavement or Beck. Rooted in the darker realities of the human condition, this is the kind of black irony where the listener is never sure if what they’re witnessing is even funny, and if it is, whether or not it’s permissible to laugh. Surreal irony – like when Hank Williams Jr. plays the guitar on stage while wearing a t-shirt of himself playing the guitar (which he often does). Nor is this in any way even remotely standard alternative country fare, despite the fact that one of the Family’s biggest champions is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Nonetheless, most of what has been laid in print about them is fairly reliable, though there still isn’t really any way to understand the deep spookiness of a Handsome Family recording on reputation alone. In fact, unless you pay pretty close attention to the lyrics, you might miss the layers of weirdness entirely.
Still, from the first few lines of Twilight, that weirdness smacks you right on top of the head, even while you’re looking for it and bracing for its blow. Songs start out bizarre and progress to get even stranger as they unwind into haunting American Gothic backyard vignettes. No doubt one of the most wonderfully matched pairings in musical history, lyricist Rennie Sparks’ profoundly imaginative verse is perfectly suited for husband Brett Sparks’ smooth monotone croon, falling somewhere between Jim Reeves and “A Prairie Home Companion”-host Garrison Keillor. Add in emotionally neutral, yet quietly effecting, arrangements, and it’s almost easy to miss the absolute terrifying quality of the songwriting. Balancing country-politan polish with the occasional backwoods collection of banjos, mandolins, and autoharps, these songs wander the cold landscapes between Appalachian whiskey stills and Wal-Mart parking lots.
The Nick Cave-ish opening track provides a perfect example, with its narrator eating a plate of hashbrowns in a diner as cars honk outside at a Saturn being pulled from the bottom of lake where a woman “killed herself and her two kids strapped in the back seat” because she didn’t want them to grow up poor. Of course, the locals are waiting around in anticipation “to see the dead woman’s face.” Disturbing, to say the least, but mostly so because it’s so incredibly imaginable, as if peeled off the headlines of the morning papers. That’s to say nothing of the two deaf elderly ladies found at the next table “laughing and banging the tabletop,” whom the narrator envies for not being able to hear the scene unfold. All this in just one song!
This sort of alternately revolting yet mesmerizing imagery is a repeated theme in the characters in Rennie Sparks’ songwriting. As in the almost homey country sway of “Cold Cold Cold,” where the protagonist chases a frozen siren through snow covered fields, you realize that he probably should know better, but you can almost feel how the enveloping otherness swallowed him entirely. It’s like the classic nightmare where you’re trying to run away with leaden legs, as if making strides through waist-deep water. Except when you finally turn around to defend yourself, you find your own face staring back at you. That’s the quality of these songs, horrifying but relating undeniable truth about the darker corners of human nature.
A strangely effecting love ballad, “I Know You Are There” boasts of the persistence of a lost lover’s presence through life’s trials, almost as if her essence hovers like a guardian angel over his lonely moments. As life-affirming, and almost touching, as sentiments like that are, there is no escaping the absolute heartbreaking misery of the solemn “Passenger Pigeons,” a song about an already lonely man mourning lost love and comparing it to the slaughter of America’s passenger pigeons. “Clubbed and shot, netted, gassed and burned, until there was nothing left but miles of empty nests,” almost as if a backhanded reference to the Holocaust, the depth of imagery in these songs is painfully blunt.
Still, there has to be a certain humor inherent in these songs. If you’re the type to spend more time laughing at horror movies than clutching the sofa cushions, you may agree. The Sparks are funny folks to be sure, as evidenced from the liner notes that relate that Rennie doesn’t know where the pictures in the album artwork (photos of prairie dogs and owls) came from, only that “I woke up in a pool of blood and there they were.” These guys can’t even keep the liner notes from turning into a surrealist buffet.
Truthfully, every one of these songs could warrant a separate review, so richly adorned with distinctive characters and loaded subplots as they are. And as alien and downright disturbing as some of these songs, the lasting effect is strangely compelling. A set of songs, all angles askew, nothing making much sense and every scene changing before you can focus on what you’re seeing, Twilight is not only a uniquely entertaining peek into the frightening reality of modern life through lyric and song, but a penetrating glance into human nature, itself. And it’s funny, too. Sort of.