The Handsome Family’s In the Air

cover artChicago’s The Handsome Family makes morbid Americana music for the depressed, crazy and suicidal. It is at times wickedly funny, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, very entertaining.

In the Air, the Handsomes’ fourth full-length CD, carries on in the same vein as 1998’s critically acclaimed Through the Trees. It’s replete with skewed hymns, gothic miniatures, grisly ballads and twisted takes on classic country music.

The Handsome Family is the husband-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks. She writes the lyrics, he (a self-described bi-polar Texan) the music. She plays bass guitar and other instruments and adds harmony to Brett’s baritone lead vocals. Brett also plays guitar and a host of other instruments, from keyboards to garbage can lids.

The 11 songs on In the Air are drawn from the same well as their previous efforts. It’s a deep and troubled well, as is apparent from the first notes of the opening track, “Don’t Be Scared.” The combination of Brett’s deadpan delivery and his open guitar tunings tell you that, although this sounds like an acoustic country song, it may actually be something else altogether. Something dangerous.

The power of these songs lies largely in Rennie’s poetic lyrics. She has a gift for gazing unflinchingly in the face of life and seeing behind the mask to the grinning death’s-head lurking there. She also seems to see behind the surface of other everyday objects, feelings and relationships, and making connections that seem obvious once she has pointed them out. Thus we have the gospel-tinged “When That Helicopter Comes,” an apocalyptic hymn that has replaced the Four Horsemen with the black helicopter of American conspiracy theorists. “There will be power in the blood when that helicopter comes,” Brett sings in his matter-of-fact drawl.

“The Sad Milkman” is a song of true lunacy, about a milkman who climbs up on the roof because he’s in love with the moon. “She filled up his window with soft milky light, till he crawled up the chimney and into the night.” They don’t come right out and say it, but you know the milkman ends up either splattered on the sidewalk or languishing in an asylum somewhere.

The title track is a first-person confessional of someone who misses out on love because he’s afraid of crossing bridges. A bouncy tune that sounds like a Johnny Cash song from the Sixties, it draws on gospel images for its chorus, “In the air, in the air, someday I will live in the air.” The most overt subversion of country music’s gospel roots is “Grandmother Waits for You,” inspired by the hymn “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” which forms the song’s chorus, multi-tracked by Brett and Rennie into a full goosebump-raising choir. The song makes Grandma’s vision of heaven seem somehow tacky though, like the aftermath of a holy-roller revival meeting. “The hills are scattered with empty wheelchairs and hearing aids thrown to the ground.”

Rennie’s lyrics pack such a punch because of her eye for detail and her unwillingness to look away from horror, like the aftermath of a man who drowns himself in the ocean. “One of his shoes bobbed on the waves. Seagulls circled until it finally sank.” The earworm “So Much Wine” is an ode to someone’s alcoholic spouse; call it “The Wineglass and the Damage Done.”

You get the feeling Brett and Rennie Sparks want to believe in “that old-time religion,” but keep coming up against evidence of humanity’s unredeemable nature, like the kid who catches fireflies in a jar and finds them dead beside the bed in the morning. “Darling don’t you know it’s only human to want to kill a beautiful thing,” Brett intones in the song’s melancholy chorus.

Fellow-Chicagoan Andrew Bird adds hot fiddle licks to two of the songs on In the Air, and Brett’s brother Darrell sings harmony and plays guitar on a couple of numbers. I do miss the guitar and vocal contributions that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy lent to Through the Trees. Overall though, In the Air is a worthy addition to the Handsome Family’s growing oeuvre, and a welcome breath of realistic fatalism for the new millennium.

(Carrot Top, 2000)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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