Songs That Fall from the Sky

Meet the Handsome Family: The story of the band that forgot time

I. TWELVE SONGS ABOUT SOMEONE ELSE'S DOG

In the first line of "After We Shot the Grizzly," the fourth song on the Handsome Family's new Last Days of Wonder, a hunting party from long ago, pioneer days, goes badly awry. In the second line, a plane crashes. Then, before the song even catches its breath, the two scenes fuse and a single survivor—of which calamity, there's no telling—starts relating the story, which is narrated in the blackly stoic, just-the-facts voice of 19th-century frontier diaries and goes on to recount progressively more deadly mishaps with the verve of top-flight pulp adventure writers from the authors of the New Testament on down. First the survivors kill and eat some horses. They fall ill with fevers. When all the easy food is gone, a few sneak away and build a raft from the skin and bones of their dead confreres. One by one they die at sea ("The captain jumped into the storm/Then we were but four," singer Brett Sparks reports in a voice grave and droll) until only the guy telling the story is left, singing to his Mary back home that he can feel her presence in the shark-filled waves.

The song is clever, pretty, weird, touching, and funny all at once. It started as sort of a private joke. Brett and Rennie Sparks both wanted to write their own version of a Jim Reeves song they particularly loved, "The Blizzard." In it, a man and his mule trudge over six miles in a blizzard, at night, so that he can get home to his beloved Mary Anne. A hundred yards from the front door, the mule can't take another step, so the man stands out there with the animal and freezes to death by morning, as a Nashville chorus repeatedly laments, "He was just a hundred yards from Mary Anne."

It's tough to overstate how strongly Brett and Rennie feel about Jim Reeves. He is the only human being expressly named in the list of "Influences" at their Myspace page. (The others: "noises in basements, strangers at crossroads, abandoned graveyards, stray dogs, hissing cats, old men in windbreakers, old ladies in polyester turbans, the clenched fists of small children.") The affinity is easy enough to understand. Reeves, who died in a plane crash in 1964, was one of the most anomalous country music stars of his day, a rich baritone singer of careful, precise phrasing and diction. Brett has a similar sort of baritone voice, and similar impulses as a craftsman. Then, too, Reeves's records could be a little weird themselves: There was a gulf between his vocal approach and use of strings, on one hand, and the traditional-sounding country story songs he often liked to sing. The contrast made certain of his performances sound very strange. If David Lynch had not had a Roy Orbison record to score the roadside beating scene in Blue Velvet, he might have done well enough using a Jim Reeves record.

"The Blizzard" was "a big inspiration" for the Handsome Family song, as Rennie puts it with a satisfied chuckle. "Structurally, anyway, but everything goes wrong in my head."

She's talking about the lyrics, and what happens to the arc of a story when she takes it in hand. Brett, on occasion, has been known to make deprecating jokes about the elegant, elliptical lines that his wife of nearly 20 years is prone to writing. He hates trying to talk about the words. "Everybody always has an opinion about Rennie's songs," he groans early on in our first interview. "What I like about Rennie's lyrics is you don't really know what they're about. I've been singing them for years, and I have no idea what they're about." It's a good line. Also patently false: Very often, it's what Brett does musically that gives shape and sense to Rennie's words.

During their 12 years as a working band, the Handsome Family have released eight albums that commingle moments of mystery, wonder, dread, and mayhem. And for the past 10 of those years, as a cult audience has grown up around them in America and Europe, fans and critics have applied labels: Gothic. Americana. Folk. Traditional. Country. Alt.country.

The labels invariably fail to stick. If you put the Sparkses' collected works on shuffle mix, one song is liable to be a melodic and lyrical throwback to 400-year-old Scots-Irish murder ballads; the next is likely as not to be built around an electrified country guitar sound resurrected from a 1965 Merle Haggard record; and the one after that a paean to dead pets or to the ghosts that fly 'round 24-hour convenience stores under buzzing fluorescent lights in dead of night. The Handsome Family don't sound remotely like anyone else—at least anyone who could possibly still be alive. Their records have the odd capacity, after only a few listens, to begin sounding like something that isn't new at all, something you must have heard before because it's been around forever. Hasn't it?

It's hard to say where a song comes from, Rennie reckons, or why you wrote it, or how it manages to do what it does. "I can't tell you what it feels like to listen to our records," she demurs, "but I know with other traditional songs, like a murder ballad, I find those songs really comforting. At first I was surprised to feel that way listening to those kinds of songs, but I think they remind you people have always suffered, and there have always been beautiful things in the world that have been lost. And that, even so, life can still have enormous meaning to it, and little moments can contain these enormously important things that can't really be expressed in other ways.

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