"I find most Americans linger in a state of perpetual adolescence in which the thought of death is pushed far away, behind a wall of shopping and running errands," Rennie Sparks says from a Midwestern road stop. But her vivid lyrics paint stories of finality in intricate strokes. The duo's latest, Last Days of Wonder, spins fables of airplane crashes alongside a hunter mistaking prey for his love, only to be devoured by her. "I think a song death is like a meditation on death," says Rennie. "The Buddhists recommend that you imagine yourself not only dead, but as a skeleton and then as a pile of bone dust. Only then can you enjoy and appreciate the moments of your life."
Like fellow (sur)realist Tom Waits, Rennie and Brett evoke dense moods and spin stories through them. Brett's tonal flourishes--from genre-spanning guitar sounds to the ever-eerie singing saw--ground fatalist tales like a fisherman sinks weights. In those stories, the devil is in the details, coloring Rennie's healthy obsession with the eccentricities of American life. Freaks of nature--human giants, bottomless holes in the Earth, mountains buried under ice--thrive in the Sparks' self-defined world.
Characters speak in first person while clawing toward survival on a raft ("After We Shot the Grizzly") or busting up a car up with bare hands ("Beautiful William"). In "These Golden Jewels," a black shoe hangs from a telephone wire, hubcaps end up in the bushes and the speaker "filled the creek with burning tires." The romantic images of America's suburban landscape of waste and sloth are explicit, cultural detritus detailed.
These images pull together inexactly. Rennie's a voracious reader and has released a collection of her own short stories, Evil. Appropriately, serial killers--like Richard Speck, whose use of hormones in prison to grow breasts finally made him happy, she says--fascinate her. She thinks of them as artists: "They're trying to manipulate and reshape the world in order to touch it, i.e. men who have to stab a woman 20 times before feeling like it's safe to touch her. It's not based on hatred, but on a great longing for untouchable beauty and life."
These days, she's reading Left Behind, an apocalyptic series that portrays the rapture from the standpoint of a 747 pilot who notices some of his passengers have disappeared mid-flight. "I like that all the Christians who are taken up into the rapture leave their clothes neatly folded over their shoes," Rennie says of a favorite nuance.
Death aside, The Handsome Family portrays moments of despair and longing between people inches apart like no one else. One of Rennie's childhood favorites, after all, is Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, which speaks to her belief in unflinching yet unrequited love. She describes it as "that beautiful tale in which we learn that love is worth dying for even if the beloved not only does not return your adoration, but doesn't even notice it."
Similarly, The Handsome Family's players often live in quiet moments of contemplation and longing. When a customer gets a smile from the server at the fast food place, the entire feeling is unspoken and detached--a product of Americans' reluctance to interact with those outside personal space. Or, back in the airport, the speaker pines for someone who could be familiar, or more likely, the vast populace of fellow citizens, never speaking, who exist only as a visage to each other, "just a hundred feet away."
It is a purely humanist act, attempting to bridge this haunting space that so many take for granted, that prevents one from speaking to the disheveled guy on the bus or having an extra word with the waitress. That lesson isn't hyper-convenient for Americans, but it's well worth learning.
The Handsome Family plays Local 506 with a full band and opener Curt Kirkwood of The Meat Puppets on Monday, July 24. The $10 show is at 9 p.m.