I’ve been trying to figure out the exact moment when I first became aware of the Handsome Family. I know it was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken around 1995 or so, and that they were opening for the Mekons, because I remember someone saying, “They’re from Chicago, Sally Timms insisted on bringing them along.” They were a three-piece then, singer/guitarist Brett Sparks with his appealingly gruff yowl, bassist/melodica player Rennie Sparks with black plastic framed glasses before those were hip and bizarre between-songs stories about animals and death, and a drummer whose name I can never remember without looking it up in liner notes. They sang dark, funny songs about giant ants and wanting a pony and inviting Jesus to your party to turn water into wine, and were generally charming and fun.
The next time I saw them was in the summer of 1998, again opening for the Mekons, and while they were still charming and fun (and Rennie’s stories had gotten even more bizarrely entertaining), they were also utterly changed. The drummer had disappeared and been replaced by a minidisc player acting as drum machine, going AWOL somewhere around the time that Brett was hospitalized for bipolar disorder, an experience that he wrote a great song about here and wrote an ever better essay about here. Rennie had by this point acquired an autoharp to go along with her bass guitar and melodica (which if you’re not familiar, is a bit like a cross between a keyboard and a gas mask) and had taken over the lyric writing entirely. And the new songs were still funny and dark, but with a new depth that clung to me for days. For example, there was “Weightless Again,” off their then-new third album Through The Trees, which compared forgetting how to approach your lover for a kiss to Indians who’d lost the ability to start fires and had to drag burning wood with them everywhere. And then the concluding chorus:
This is why people OD on pills
And jump from the
Golden Gate Bridge
Anything to feel weightless again
It was as spooky as it was true — as were songs about taking revenge on your sister’s death by snakebite by setting fire to the woods where it took place (“My Sister’s Tiny Hands”) and the impermanence of human achievement (“Cathedrals”) and just about every other song on the record, which remains an absolute classic. It was existential music, conveyed via Brett’s soothing, cautioning baritone and traditional old-timey folk music forms that I had never completely appreciated before. I went out and finally bought the Harry Smith folk anthology. I bought a melodica, and sort of learned to play it. It was the kind of effect the Handsomes could have on you.
In particular, as I mentioned briefly in my Freakwater entry, Rennie Sparks is an absolutely incredible writer, able to capture the horror and the beauty of both the natural world and the manmade world (which is really just another part of the natural world) and make it all of a piece. In Rennie’s world, the little Dutch boy takes no pleasure in being celebrated as a hero, for he knows that he’s only temporarily forestalled the coming flood. A bottomless hole in one’s backyard is both irresistable adventure and deathly lure. Octopi are celebrated and feared for their cunning ability to lure anyone to leap to a watery death. And I haven’t even gotten into her short stories, which are even more wondrous and disturbing. Just like life, only more so.