Ghosts leading travelers into empty fields. Drowned children and dark, all-seeing eyes. Love.
The Handsome Family's latest CD, Twilight, picks up where 2000's brilliant spookfest, In The Air, left off. Lyricist Rennie Sparks' little vignettes are akin to drinking alone in a cold empty room, with a loaded handgun on a table nearby. In such circumstances, imagination may not be a friend.
In "Passenger Pigeons," the narrator describes his feelings thus: "A billion birds flew in my hollow dying heart the first time I touched your arm," then describes how those same birds are destroyed by nets and clubs. "I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear." A touching sentiment, made sublime by its grand autumnal imagery.
The real genius of this husband and wife duo is Brett, who sets these stories to aching, funereal country melodies. The words almost never rhyme, and yet the form is standard. The challenge of shaping the music to the words is more starkly apparent on this CD than their prior efforts, mostly because the tunes are slower and more deliberate. Brett's vocals, delivered in Tim Foljahn/Stephin Merritt bass, are as assured and sorrowful as ever, the perfect fit for these lamentations. Much like the Magnetic Fields or $2 Guitar, you have to see them live to understand that the disturbing subject matter is often tongue-in-cheek. The best example on Twilight is "So Long," a farewell to the flora and fauna we accidentally or maliciously destroy on our way through life, and the unease that we may confront them again, on the other side.
The band's repertoire hasn't shown much growth, but that's all right; they occupy a space all their own. If The Handsome Family ever does move on, whatever comes up to take their place might be equally full of dread, but lacking the self-awareness that keeps this "family" such sly, spooky fun.