The Age of Anxiety

Handsome devils: Rennie and Brett Sparks
Courtesy of Girlie Action

Handsome Family lyricist Rennie Sparks once wrote in Salon that her first exposure to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music reassured her that "life has always been uncertain, unfair and bloodthirsty." An important historical lesson, that: The notion of perfectible humanity and inexorable progress may well be an Enlightenment sham, but at least life hasn't grown more sinister. But could the lesson Sparks learned be a heartening one? Well, at least there are some things you can depend on, no matter how brutal. In this world gone wrong, you take whatever reassurance you get.

My own moment of reassurance arrived at an Entry show Sparks and husband Brett performed in fall of 1999. Live, Brett sings, plays guitar, and ensures that his programmed accompaniment is in sync with his strum. As he generates this surprisingly lush sound all by his lonesome, Rennie has little to do but chime in with the odd cracked harmony and occasional Autoharp lick. But between songs, while Brett diddles with his rig, she drops self-(and Brett-) deprecating wisecracks, as if the duo need to back away from their music's gorgeous expanse to temper it with wry skepticism.

That tangle of doubt and awe underpins the Handsomes' latest release, Twilight (Carrot Top). Rennie's writing has grown sharper, her sustained narratives less prone to the easy macabre joke. Brett's arrangements have grown chillier, their sheer, glistening surface of sound less likely to offer up a warm, countrified distraction. And though the melodies do sink in with time, at first the sung imagery provides the cranny in which you find an earhold. A couplet such as "There is a sound like breaking glass/When water falls on dying grass," resonates verbally before you remember how to hum it.

I know, rock lyrics ain't poetry, and who would want them to be? But what if I told you that "The Snow White Diner" not only thematically echoes Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," but that Sparks's more wry, plainspoken lyric trumps ol' W.H.? That poet's meditation on the old masters notes the plowman on the fringe of Bruegel's painting "The Fall of Icarus," too busy with life to be bothered with the tragic plummet of some mythic dinkus. In the Sparks version, Brett picks at hash browns as a Saturn is hauled out of a lake. Seems a woman drove into the frozen water, snuffing out herself and her kids, and all the town is there to take in the grisly spectacle. Everyone, that is, except two old deaf women who laugh obliviously at a table nearby, an occurrence that somehow calms our narrator.

Similar epiphanies--some comic, some morbid, some both--keep the duo trudging forward. "Gravity is not the only force at work in this world," the Handsomes insist, leaving it open as to whether these other forces might be more benign. After all, that supposition recalls the hoary Handsome Family chestnut "Weightless Again" (it dates all the way back to 1997), which insists that people O.D., jump from bridges, and fall in love for the same reason--to defy gravity. "I Know You Are There"--which states that some ineffable second-person pronoun will not desert the singer even when "white owls circle screaming and gravel fills [his] mouth"-- is as much a genuine hymn as it as a lachrymose parody of one. The Sparkses' unnamed higher force, whatever it may be, doesn't really do anything--may even be malevolent--but the presence of some sort of constant is reassurance enough.

And so the duo sings the weird, new America, in which nature reintegrates human detritus into its sprawl and we take beauty where we can find it. The tumult of life in the city, for instance, doesn't reflect the brightness of the stars--that light emanates from the glow of (as one song title puts it) "All the TVs in Town." (What else would you expect from folkie contrarians who sculpt roots music with Pro Tools?) Twilight is pervaded by a willfully absurd faith: the reassurance that comes from accepting mystery and doubt. Not for nothing do they entitle their Luddite recessional "Peace in the Valley." Could be that the Handsome Family have made their first gospel record.

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