Handsome Family on Pitchfork

Thursday, 30th April 2009

Brett and Rennie Sparks have been recording together as the Handsome Family for 14 years now, but they've been married for 20. To mark their china anniversary, the couple are foregoing a retrospective of their seven studio albums (although they're certainly due) in favor of a brand-new Family album, fittingly titled Honey Moon. Rather than dwell on country gothic doom and despair, they've recorded all manner of love songs-- odes to sex, devotion, redemption, sacrifice, New Mexico, and more sex-- that are only slightly sunnier than their usual fare. But don't expect corny sentiments even from a song called "Love Is Like": Even commemorating two decades together, they indulge the dark edges of these eccentric and personal songs, as if love is all that keeps the abyss at bay. Love is like, Brett sings, "a black fly buzzing in the sun" or "the hole torn right through the roof."Nevertheless, even at its most ruminative, Honey Moon sounds like a celebratory record, a document of the ups and downs that define any marriage. As if responding to the airports and strip malls of 2006's Last Days of Wonder, these new songs are so full of woodsy imagery that they make Neko Case seem urbane. The only modern edifices here are the pawnshops and neon signs on "A Thousand Diamond Rings", and they are transformed into a romantic setting by the "watermelon light" of the sun setting over the desert. Nothing stands out as boldly as "Weightless Again" on Through the Trees or "Tesla's Hotel Room" on Last Days, but the lighter mood suits them sweetly."Darling my darling, look at my waving antennae," sings Brett on "Darling, My Darling". There may be a dick joke hidden in that opening line, but there's more Henry Miller than Franz Kafka as the songs follows the man-as-bug metaphor to its logical conclusion: "I'll leap on your spine and love you till you gnaw me down to my wings/ I'll give you everything." That the songs comes across as sweetly romantic and devoted until death-- as opposed to either showy or creepy-- is a testament both to Rennie's skillful threading of words into images and Brett's sensitive translation of words on a page into vocals.In the Handsome Family, Brett and Rennie divide musical duties the way some couples assign household chores. Blessed with a humble, hollowed-out-like-a-tree-trunk baritone, he does most of the singing. An accomplished novelist and poet, she does most of the songwriting. On Honey Moon, Rennie displays a typically observant eye for the small details that become portentous with meaning: A flock of birds beckons thoughts of escape, a sunset changes their world for just a few minutes each day, and a cement mixer inspires existential ponderings. Brett and the extended Family set her deep thoughts to sparse arrangements with subtle animating flourishes like the dreamy 1950s rock piano of "Linger, Let Me Linger", Dave Gutierrez's spidery dobro on "When You Whispered", or Brett's hoarse whistle on "The Loneliness of Magnets".Interestingly for a group most commonly associated with story-based songs, Honey Moon sheds all narrative concerns for more descriptive language. Even "When You Whispered", whose title implies a mystery about what exactly was whispered, is less worried over the quiet verbal exchange than the scenery around them: the wind on the bridge, the ripples of water beneath, the frogs on the shore. The album is full of similar tableaux: These songs are dioramas depicting the New Mexico wilderness as a reverberation of the couple's desires.7.2