Over the past 20+ years The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks have been responsible for some of the most dark, funny and strange songs ever written. Spending time in their company is a little like wandering around a circus late at night. There’s still a little magic floating in the air, but in the dark the clowns’ masks are slipping, and the animals who were dancing so elegantly not a few hours ago are hunkered in their tiny trailers. Their songs often seem to say that behind every beautiful thing, there’s darkness, and that, in itself, is a beautiful thing.
Whilst the band’s records are frequently breathtaking, the only way to truly experience them is in a live setting. These songs are stories, with humanity and depth to them that only really comes across when experiencing Brett’s glorious vocal timbre and guitar twang (complimented by the sweetening vocals of Rennie). More importantly, it’s the introductions and stories between the songs that give them context and humour. A whole set of these songs with no humour at all would be a little too much, but somehow they find tiny specks of light in themes such as death, mental illness, and the human impulse to kill.
The back and forth banter between the pair on stage sheds some light on how they operate as a couple. They share stories and experiences, lightly jabbing at each other with affectionate criticism, playing yin and yang until coming together to tease the audience, who they anticipate will want more versions of their song Far From Any Road (the theme for True Detective) . It’s these moments, perhaps more than the songs themselves that show them as operating on an almost psychic level, finishing each other’s sentences and cutting across each other for no other reason than that fact it’s just fun. It’s something that comes not only from being married, but constantly living in each other’s pockets on the road and it’s not something that can be rehearsed.
Tonight’s gig takes a little while to really get rolling. The band seems a little off the pace initially and Rennie’s vocals sit a little too high in the mix. Eventually it starts to click, and when it happens there’s a sense of electricity that hangs in the air. The Giant Of Illinois is a true story, but seems like a tragic fairy tale, My Ghost is introduced with a throwaway one liner, but tells the heart-breaking story of Brett’s breakdown.
Weightless Again is elegant and beautiful, pushing notions of love, exploration, hopelessness and suicide together to create something utterly spell binding. Brett’s solo take on A Beautiful Thing (played for the daughter of an audience member) is spectacular and highlights the Handsome Family’s ability to make musical fairy tales. They wrap occasionally uncomfortable subjects and truths in fantastical music and imagery; more often than not, the response is to laugh or cry. Sometimes, as evidenced during tonight’s set, they illicit both responses simultaneously.
They end the set with Owls, a song about a man found dead in a house full of owls. “There’ s something about owls” says Rennie, introducing the song “they’re always around when people die, there was a bunch of them in Hank Williams’ car”. Just for a minute, it all seems so plausible, that the owls are not what they seem and the when approaching the scene, the police were startled by a mass of feathers, sharp beaks and a dead country star. It’s a strange world that the Sparks ‘ inhabit, and as dark as it might be there, it’s always a joy to visit.