After the best part of two decades as a secret pleasure enjoyed by a select few, New Mexico-based husband/wife duo The Handsome Family were suddenly exposed to a far wider audience when their song Far From Any Road was picked up as the True Detective Season 1 theme music.
A soaring, sinister slice of gothic-tinged Americana, not only did Far From Any Road perfectly complement the show’s occult-infused theme, it also neatly summarised the strengths of its creators. An intoxicating brew of American traditional country and bluegrass, blended with the vivid storytelling of fiction writer Rennie Sparks told in the sonorous baritone of spouse Brett, it opened up commercial opportunities for the Handsome Family that had been unimaginable during their consistently impressive but largely low key career to date.
Unseen, their 10th album in total, is their first since True Detective and while their profile may have changed since their last release, their sound certainly hasn’t. Unseen continues in very much the same vein as its predecessors, Brett and Rennie having resisted the temptation to capitalise on their new found attention by making a calculated shift towards the mainstream.
The record’s title reflects its narrative, focusing as it does on the unseen stories, people, and places of the American West, shining a light on obscure, forgotten figures with a folkloric mystique. The cast of characters depicted ranges from the world’s smallest horse (Tiny Tina) to the inventor William Crookes, who built the first vacuum tube in 1875 hoping to detect spirits from alternate dimensions. It’s typically idiosyncratic Handsome Family territory, with Rennie’s novelist skills ensuring each portrait is compellingly drawn.
Recorded in the Sparks’ home studio at night, Unseen has a characteristically rustic tapestry of instrumentation, including mandolin, dobro and pedal steel, which as usual juxtaposes perfectly with the subject matter and mood of the songs.
For some reason though, despite the tried and trusted quality of their core ingredients, the songs themselves feel a little underwhelming when consumed as a whole. The Silver Light, with its ostensibly twee twang counterbalanced by an ominously deep, echoing vocal, is an encouraging early highlight, and is followed by the excellent Back In My Day, the closest Unseen comes to the epic grandeur of Far From Any Road with its stately strings and Brett’s dramatic Scott Walker-like croon.
Yet other tracks seem content to just amble along amiably – Underneath the Falls and The Sea Rose being prime examples. The Red Door sounds great until you realise that’s mostly because it’s a dead ringer for the Bob Dylan/The Band classic I Shall Be Released, while The Green Willow Valley feels like rather a damp squib of a finale when compared to some of the great songs that have closed their earlier albums – My Ghost from 1998’s Through The Trees being perhaps the most memorable.
All things considered, Unseen feels like a missed opportunity for The Handsome Family. It’s by no means a bad album and one established fans will undoubtedly enjoy, but essentially the band are on auto-pilot when it would have been great to hear them go up a gear. There’s nothing here that the Sparks haven’t done before – and better – and although its admirable that they haven’t sold out to cash in on the True Detective effect, the time was arguably right for a little more adventure.