Whether live or in studio, Albuquerque via Chicago husband and wife duo The Handsome Family have been consistently good and prolific since their early ’90s formation. Despite needing more band members (for mostly logistical reasons) in order to record and play live, The Handsome Family’s sound has always sounded like that of a duo; it’s remained remarkably intimate thanks to their insular, weirder than Tom Waits‘ songwriting.
While 2003’s Singing Bones stands out among the band’s catalogue, with a new Handsome Family release, you pretty much know what you’re getting. Their 10th release, Wilderness, ironically puts the “family” in the band’s name: from the album cover to the lyrics, Wilderness combines childlike wonder, myth and obsessions and musings on the natural animal world to create a colorful, deceptively not family-friendly entry in the band’s catalogue.
On Wilderness, every song title is a type of animal, but you get the sense that the band is trying to capture something larger than the animal at stake or is using the animal to get at something greater. This animal versus big concept contrast is made no more explicit than on Glow Worm, as lead singer Brett Sparks does his best Johnny Cash impersonation while singing, “I held that glowing worm” in conjunction with “I held the center of the world”.
Elsewhere, on opener Flies, Sparks’ baritone, which somehow sounds like John Darnielle’s whiny voice combined with Eddie Vedder’s deep pitch, conveys how beautiful a dead General Custer’s body looked to the flies buzzing around it. It comes across as a lullaby or an ever-present post-Civil War standard akin to John Brown’s body mouldering in the grave, however, rather than a morbid tale. Flies takes a topic that’s the talk of legend, Custer’s Last Stand, and shrinks it to something tangible and visceral, as if to remind listeners of all ages that they are as small as a fly in comparison to history.
Elsewhere on Wilderness, The Handsome Family use the animal to capture a feeling of paranoia, mental instability and hallucination. The bouncy Octopus, which sports a The National-like piano and dour strings, describes an octopus trying to convince the main character of the song to come into the water. Whether a modern day Garden of Eden-esque temptress or a slithery, slimy representation of the main character’s psyche and parallel personality, the octopus still sounds like a classic character in a children’s song whose meaning and lyrics simply fly over a young listener’s head. Owls, meanwhile, takes The National into the old west, as honky-tonk bar piano channels the Old, Weird America, and its main character is convinced that a house full of owls are stealing his pills. In short, it’s typical Handsome Family.
But perhaps closer Wildebeest best exemplifies Wilderness’ combination of actual history, legend, animal comparisons, and familial singing. On Wildebeest, both Brett and Rennie Sparks sound like parents singing to their kids when describing the death of “father of American music” Stephen Foster. Foster infamously repeatedly slammed his head against a water basin as a result of fever and later died of infection. The Sparks’ interpretation of Foster’s death? A smorgasbord of analogy and Old Weird America, and of frontier striving: “He smashed his head on the sink / In the bitter fever of gin / The wildebeest go crazy with thirst / Pull down as he try to drink.” Later in the song, The Handsome Family arrive full circle from Flies, labeling Foster’s ghost “beautiful”, finding beauty in not the ugly, but the small details of death that are so often lost within the legend. With an ambiguous name like The Handsome Family and a rich album like Wilderness, perhaps the duo will start to create its own ghostlike aura.