The Handsome Family’s Wilderness

cover, Wilderness“Can you imagine your own world suddenly made shining, weightless and stretching infinitely in all directions?”

This is the question Rennie Sparks asks toward the end of her essay on woodpeckers, the first in her 70-page book Wilderness that accompanies the deluxe editions of The Handsome Family’s latest CD of the same title. As it happens, I can imagine such a world. It’s the world to which The Handsome Family has transported me many times as I’ve listened to their music.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, I should qualify that: their deeply and beautifully weird music. They started recording in the ’90s as a country-influenced punk band, but now they’re referred to as alternative country, with strong components of Appalachian folk and Southern Gothic. If that makes you think of death ballads and lonesome love songs, there’s a lot of that in The Handsome Family’s music. But it’s also full of dark tales about mental illness and creepy dirges about animals and many more in which the odd behavior of seemingly normal people is observed with a quiet intensity.

The Handsome Family is Rennie, who writes the lyrics, and her husband Brett Sparks, who writes the music and sings the songs in a craggy bass-baritone voice that’s often compared to Johnny Cash’s. He plays guitars and harmonica, and she sings harmonies and plays banjo, bass, keyboards and autoharp.

Wilderness, their ninth studio album, follows a trend begun with their previous two releases, the history- and science-themed Last Days of Wonder and the romantic Honeymoon, which celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. But Wilderness is even more strongly thematic than either of those albums, dealing as it does with the uneasy intersections where humanity and other animals meet. It’s territory that they’ve touched on frequently from their very first release, but this time, between the songs and the book, they delve deeply into it. Each song’s title is the name of a single creature: “Woodpecker,” “Wolf,” “Glow Worm,” etc.

It’s also more sonically sophisticated and varied than any of their previous albums (although I seem to say this every time), with lots of pedal steel guitar, some fiddle and Dobro and keyboards, and more rocking electric guitar than I recall hearing on their records since their second, Milk and Scissors. The book of Rennie’s essays and drawings, while not absolutely necessary, is a great aid to understanding these songs.

I have a few early favorites, but I’ve learned that Handsome Family songs are capable of revealing ever deeper layers of meaning as time passes, so a year or two from now my favorites could be altogether different. Right now, though, they’re “Owls,” “Woodpecker,” and “Octopus.”

“Owls” is a twangy waltz with nice classic-country touches of pedal steel and honky-tonk piano. It brings to mind the late George Jones, and not just because of his recent death; its protagonist sings about his wonderful blue mansion, full of all kinds of riches and luxurious trappings. It’s also full of “thousands of owls all flapping their wings.” Do the owls truly keep him company in his lonely empty house, or do they have something to do with those pills he’s frantically searching for in the last verse?

“Woodpecker” has at its core the true story of a Wisconsin woman named Mary Sweeney, who was arrested many times in the 1890s for smashing windows in strangers’ houses. It’s a lovely, lilting song in the Appalachian folk style, with Brett and Rennie singing a duet accompanied by acoustic guitar and mandolin.

And “Octopus,” a piano-driven mid-tempo rocker, has some of Rennie’s most darkly funny writing in it. “When the octopus waves its arms, it hypnotizes schools of fish; all movement stops for miles,” Brett sings, and when sailors see this phenomenon, “it’s impossible to resist the urge to jump overboard.” He then goes on to sing that’s why he avoids the sea, because it activates a suicidal impulse that’s hard to resist.

The album starts with “Flies,” a languid country song whose first verse seems like the beginning of a murder ballad, with its description of lovely golden hair and blood pouring out of a body onto a blue velvet coat. But it’s not, it’s a description of George Armstrong Custer (who was said to have used cinnamon oil in his blonde hair) dying on the battlefield at Little Big Horn. The song contrasts the bloody battlefield with the current presence of Wal-Mart stores in nearby Montana towns, where guns are sold and where finches nest in the metal rafters. And then it ventures further afield, into the silent empire of the ants, living under the even vaster empire of lawns that has replaced the once-rolling prairie were the Indians hunted the vanished bison.

A fiddle decorates the delicate country waltz “Spider,” in which an unnamed person is first followed home from the woods by a tiny arachnid, but soon is cowering under the onslaught of uncountable crawling and wriggling creatures.

Rennie writes about mistaken beliefs people used to have about some animals in the song “Eels.” It’s a quiet acoustic waltz with simple instrumentation. Its lyrics compare the monarch butterfly’s migration with a similarly amazing trip made by certain young eels; both, Brett sings, are “following a path to places never seen, to see the secret map the moon draws on the sea.”

A honky-tonk piano and what sounds like a harmonium accompany the last track “Wildebeest.” It’s a sad waltz about the death of the great American songwriter Stephen Foster, drunk and all but penniless in a flophouse in New York’s Bowery at the age of 37. What do wildebeests have to do with Stephen Foster? In Rennie’s lyrical essay about the wildebeest, she discusses how herd behavior drives many individuals to their deaths but also ensures the herd’s continuing existence in many ways. Perhaps the closest we humans can come to understanding this instinctive herd behavior, she writes, is by singing in harmony with other persons.

As I said, those essays greatly enhance the experience of the songs. I recommend everyone who gets the album also get a copy of the book, either color of black and white. Here are a couple of examples why I feel that way.

In her ruminations about Little Big Horn (in her essay on caterpillars), Rennie says:

No human has yet heard the story of this battle from the flies’ point of view, but we can assume that it was a day of huge celebration and that all the corpses were found equally beautiful, even the one reeking of cinnamon oil. Everyone gorged, made love and laid their eggs in the bounty. Even the white men’s horses were there to feast on. The American soldiers had shot their horses in the last desperate moments of the battle and used the fallen bodies as shields during their final futile attempts to survive.

I doubt the horses on either side of this battle would have had anything nice to say about the experience.

In the “Woodpecker” essay, she theorizes that maybe Mary Sweeney saw something inside the glass that no other people could see and wanted to set it free, in much the same way that woodpeckers can hear unseen larvae crawling around inside trees.

The assertion that some octopuses mimic the pattern of starlight flickering on the ocean floor provides the superbly weird last line in the song “Frogs”: “Lie down in the dirt, sister, we are mirrors of the night.” Here’s what Rennie says at the end of her octopus essay:

The gorgeous brown and white coloration of Octopus Horridus mimics the faint flicker of starlight reflected off the ocean’s floor. Not horrid in the least! I would empty my bank account right now if I could purchase a coat or even a pair of gloves that mimicked the faint flicker of star-light. I may construct a coat of mirrors to wear out on clear, starry nights.

(Carrot Top, 2013)

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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