Death Becomes Them

Fatal vision: Brett and Rennie Sparks

NO, OF COURSE Brett Sparks doesn't sound like Johnny Cash, whatever you read in Spin. Such comparisons are just a polite way of saying he sometimes sings flat, so you might just as well say he sounds like Lou Reed and Liz Phair and Ol' Dirty Bastard and um, Dan Aykroyd. Still, it's not hard to imagine that Cash's "Long Black Veil" changed the Chicago singer's life. Hell, there must have been an honest epiphany in discovering the stoicism that a technically deficient but interpretively resourceful fellow can project by falling short of the notes. And Brett's wife Rennie, who puts the words in her stolid hubby's mouth, must have been equally struck by that murder ballad's subject matter--the moral conundrums, the yearning for timelessness, and, above all, the fact that it was about a dead guy.

As evidenced on the duo's latest album, the sublime In the Air (Carrot Top), the happy couple that record as the Handsome Family does seem to be in a greater rush to the finish line of existence than is proper among robust Midwesterners. By the time "William" of "Up Falling Rock Hill" is shot in the back by the pitiless narrator in a pitiful narrative, you suspect the duo of harboring delusions of being Nick Cave. And the limp satire of "Poor, Poor Lenore," in which enterprising crows haul off a woman jilted by a gravedigger's son (whew!) is pidgin Poe at best, delivered in vowels lengthened in a spooky affectation worthy of a Halloween-special voiceover.

But write the Handsomes off as macabre gloom-pusses on account of these two gaffes and you miss the gorgeous "Lie Down," an obit for a suicidal clam digger seduced by the lulling lap of the waves. "Lie down, lie down, in the dark rolling sea," the waters sing. "When you get to the bottom we'll kiss you to sleep." Aiming for the archetypal simplicity of Hank Williams, the Sparkses instead achieve a lurid resonance worthy of Christina Rossetti--a century wide of their target, maybe, but a strong model for anyone wooed by death's graceful ease. The apparent fatalism of In the Air gradually ebbs into a humility, an awe in the face of the realization that there's a world far bigger than they are.

And throughout, their gothic impulses reveal themselves as less knee-jerk morbidity and more a knowing infatuation with the transience of beauty, an infatuation that's often sadder when no one dies by the last stanza. When Sparks sings, "Darling, don't you know it's only human to want to kill a beautiful thing," you would expect him to be three shovels of earth away from covering his sweetie's corpse. In fact, the "thing" in question isn't anything as specific and messy as a human. Nope, all he's killed is the moment: aborting a nice trip the pair planned into town by swallowing a fifth of gin while watching Singin' in the Rain, thereby souring their date. "I wanted to tell you all the ways that I loved you," he laments. "But instead I got sick on the train."

Displaced (but not delusional) romantics, the Handsomes obviously see their fate as similar to that of "The Sad Milkman," a boy who falls in love with the moon and reaches up fruitlessly to claim his beloved. The delicate ditty, whose waltz time is marked by the wheeze of an accordion, swells as hecklers below toss bottles at the lad. In a telling show of self-awareness, Sparks's voice acknowledges the humor of the milkman's desire without indulging it. To stretch toward unattainable perfection may be a ridiculous thing, after all, but that doesn't mean it's a joke.

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