The press release accompanying The Handsome Family’s eighth album, Honey Moon, makes much of the fact that 2009 marks Brett and Rennie Sparks’s 20th anniversary. Indeed the songs on this album all qualify as love songs, but then I believe nearly all of the songs on their previous seven albums could, too. Sometimes they are love songs to ghosts that live in supermarkets, or to crumbling, empty shopping malls, or even to bottomless holes. And, true, a lot of people die in those songs. But in the minutely observed poetry of Rennie’s lyrics and the mock-portentous delivery of Brett’s marvelous bass-baritone, The Handsome Family’s songs are odes of love to the human condition in all its manifestations, from dark to whimsical.
All this love is on full display in Honey Moon, right from the opening of the first track, “Linger, Let Me Linger.” A single chord on a nylon-stringed guitar gives the key, and then Brett sings the introductory verse almost free-form, accompanied only by that strumming guitar: “Like the thorn bush twines against the chain link fence / like the spider spins its links between the trees / and the lonely sycamore bends to the breeze . . .” From the title and that intro, you expect a parlor ballad, and that’s almost what you get. It’s a parlor ballad crossed with a melancholy swamp pop love song, for at this point a piano enters, playing sets of triplets that are typical of the genre, while in the background a cello moans softly.
From there through 11 more songs, the album is a sometimes giddy, often lush journey through an Americana book of love songs. As Brett explains in the press release, “Since we decided that all the songs would address the same theme (love), I decided that musically each one should be distinct to avoid the pitfalls of other records of this ilk. Each song should be its own world, have its own style. So it’s a record of 12 self-contained entities.”
Brett and Rennie sing and play most of the parts themselves, although on this album Stephen Dorocke plays lap steel and guitar, Dave Gutierrez classical guitar and Dobro, and Jason Toth drums.
Indeed. From the country shuffle of “Little Sparrows” to the slow gospel burn of “My Friend,” complete with B-3 organ, to the jazzy swing of “The Loneliness of Magnets” and the bluegrass duet of “When You Whispered,” there’s plenty of variety. Uniting it all, in addition to the theme of love, is Rennie’s organic poetry in which a longing for and close observation of nature plays a major role. “When you fly away from here / take me with you when you go,” is the repeated refrain of “Little Sparrows.” “You leaned in closer as the sun fell away / a plastic bag trembled, caught in the waves / when you whispered what you whispered in my ear,” go the lyrics in “When You Whispered,” its sing-song tune drawn from American folk forms. “I know the sky blue longing of a cloud of spiraling birds / all turning in an instant, a perfect spinning whirl,” sings Brett at his most stentorian in “The Loneliness Of Magnets.”
“A Thousand Diamond Rings” is a love song to their new hometown, Albuquerque, and an ode to the way our feelings about a person or place can transform the way we see it: “Sunset’s a bird with wings made out of fire / parking lots turn to gold as it glides across the sky.” “June Bugs,” a slow waltz, is a love song to springtime and the lusty kind of love we feel in that new season: “I want to kiss you in thickets and dripping wet glades / as the stars rub against the dark skin of space.” The loping shuffle of “Wild Wood” is a comic romp through naive back-to-nature hippiedom, in which even poisonous plants are special. “You can growl and hit me with a rock / when you want to say I love you in the dark,” Brett sings, and you don’t know if it’s ironic or slyly wise or naively simple.
Happy 20th anniversary to Brett and Rennie Sparks; the rest of us got a gift, this new CD.
(Carrot Top, 2009)