Any author or songwriter will tell you that a piece’s opening lines are centrally important. Regardless of what may follow, a colorful lead paragraph or a lively line or two of verse is often all it takes to hook a reader in. With that in mind, it will be a tough assignment to find a better opening verse this year in music than the one that opens “Gold”, the lead-off track on Unseen, The Handsome Family’s latest album:
Got a tattoo of a snake/And a ski mask on my face/But I woke up in a ditch/Behind the Stop-N-Go”/Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut/Watching dollar bills go fly away in the dust.
Written by Rennie Sparks, one-half of the husband and wife duo that make up The Handsome Family, the song was apparently forged out of a quick run her husband, Brett, made to the neighborhood convenience store in their hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. While most folks would have simply blithely commented upon the store’s offerings of snack selections or availability of Icee flavors, Rennie allowed her imagination to take hold and instead came up with a wild and wonderful tale of violent crime and small town justice. It’s what makes her such an amazing storyteller, and when accompanied by Brett’s sweeping orchestration, makes the duo such a solid and unique musical act.
Americana royalty for well over twenty years, and trafficking in the dark recesses of the folk world, the duo spins spooky yarns and tells tall fables deeply steeped in the grotesque tradition and often tinged with elements of the absurd. They gained prominence a few years back when their song “Far From Any Road” played over the opening credits of the highly regarded first season of the HBO crime drama, True Detective. While the placement was a boon to the couple’s profile, longtime fans had been familiar for years with their voluminous and idiosyncratic output. With Unseen, their tenth album, the songs’ story lines follow a familiar arc.
Those that stray far from the constraints of society’s norms are the types of folks favored by The Handsome Family. “Gentlemen”, sinisterly arranged with a madcap organ lead, finds a haunted scientist tempting reality and testing the boundaries of his elements as he attempts to use his power to communicate with extraterrestrial beings: “Gentlemen, I tell you now/I swear the truth/I saw the table rise, the teacup flew.” “The Silver Casino” tells of the vices and ill-advised deeds undertaken by obsessive gamblers housed deep in the recesses of dimly lit gaming houses. There, one can continue to tempt fate and waste hard-earned money with little to distract, save for the “beefy nachos and chicken wings” and “free refills on your drink”. These two slyly worded odes to modern indulgence sound all the more clever swathed in the old-school countrified musical stylings the duo utilizes here to great effect. It also illustrates the fact that though the lights have gotten brighter and the stakes have gotten a little higher, gambling is still a hard habit to shake.
Elsewhere, Brett and Rennie continue to explore unique angles and untouched corners. “Tiny Tina” uses a story about viewing the “World’s Smallest Horse” at a backwoods county fair to comment upon the general amount of bleak absurdity housed within the walls of carnivals and traveling shows. “Back in my Day” achingly looks to earlier and better times, though not those of a younger golden era typically associated with nostalgia. Here, Brett reminisces of a long-gone almost prehistoric time, where things were mystical and strange enough to not even be comprehended. Take music for example, for then: “music sounded better recorded on sheets of ice/and when the songs turned to water/we couldn’t help but cry”.
And so it goes with The Handsome Family. One can never be quite prepared for exactly what types of characters will be introduced and what types of situations these lively folks will find themselves entangled in. With Rennie’s keen literary focus and Brett’s murky musical vision, the template they’ve established continues to resonate and fascinate. It’s a testament to their creative partnership that songs about long-forgotten inventors and God-forsaken patches of land can sound so fresh and invigorating. The duo continue to create collections worthy of repeated listens and further interpretations. They’ll likely continue to do so as long as the muse continues to visit.