Album review: The Handsome Family – Wilderness

You know how it goes: you’re listening to the Gideon Coe Show on 6Music (I have GOT to get some new sources) and The Handsome Family come on.  You’re stopped in your tracks, never having thought to hear this amazing duo on the wireless. But there they are. A new album, they say ? You realise that the exploits of The Handsome Family have escaped you for a little while, that you’ve spent too long being spooked by “Cold, Cold, Cold” or struck dumb by the truth of “Weightless Again” and that it might be fair to let some other songs by Brett and Rennie Sparks occupy your ears. And then it strikes you, when “If The World Should End In Ice” comes on your ipod as you walk into work through the blistering chill of this Baltic-cold British ‘Spring’. Of course it’s time for The Handsome Family again. They were right all along, the world is going to freeze to death, and we’re in the opening throes of the killing chill…

So I dropped The Handsome Family a tweet and here I am: reviewing their new album ‘Wilderness’.  It’s an honour of an opportunity and this record is a fine addition to their recordings. The album is out in May – check their website, twitter stream or facebook page for updates.

So far ‘Frogs’ has grabbed an enormous amount of my attention. So much so that it is sometimes hard for other songs to get a look in. But I’m not worried; I know that this album is going to be with me for some time to come and that eventually each one of the 12 tunes will have their chance to monopolise my eardrums. ‘Frogs’ is a powerful, brooding pulsation of a song. From the opening electric strum of David Gutierrez’s guitar you know you’re in trouble: the lyrics mirror the irresistible night-time call of the frogs, calling you on, into the brutal soil, to god knows what horror.

“Down in the flooded fields beneath the falling stars.
Lie down in the dirt, brother, be a mirror to the night.
Lie down in the dirt, sister, we are mirrors of the night.”

It is also, unusually for The Handsome Family, punctuated by two guitar solos that are, unlike so many, absolutely necessary to and in sympathy with the songs.  David Gutierrez cranks up the tension and multiplies the sense of brooding menace with each ringing note.

‘Frogs’ comes on the heels of the wistful ‘Flies’, a poignant consideration of the contrast between ground as it was then when General George Armstrong Custer fought his last engagement there, and now with a Wal-Mart arisen.  The moment when Brett sings “and there in Montana prairie grass” is quintessential Handsome Family; in a stroke he has delivered us into the mesmerising grip of myth. In a time where “everyone still has a gun” Rennie gives us our first reminder that nature remains more potent still: terrible, brutal, and remorseless. Where the Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought, “great armies of the smallest ants fight battles for the glory of their queen” and “10000 fall”.  And they mock us at the end, for the result of all our labours, and our bloodshed, to gain “our great empire of lawns”.

There follows a deadly duo of the Pretty and the Jaunty. Riding on a delicate and delightful undercurrent of keyboards ‘Eels’ reminds us that nature knows the plan and that we are lost, completely lost:

“But the airplanes overhead hang heavy in the air
& all the shiny cars circle in despair.
“Where am I?” They cry. “Where are you? Where am I?”

And then ‘Octopus’ bouncily delivers us a sinister phobic, afraid of the hypnotic power of the eponymous creature who can make “all movement [stop] for miles”, but who enjoys a twilight trip down to a pier “where the water’s deep and cold”. What is  he doing down there ?  I don’t think any of us want to know.

In the middle of the album, on ‘Glow Worm’, I think they’ve crafted something more horrifying than ‘The Bottomless Hole’ from 2003’s “Singing Bones“. That song’s narrator was a foolish obsessive who couldn’t see himself being manipulated into solitary eternal torment by a pit behind his barn. ‘The Bottomless Hole’s last line has a sickening ring: “until i hit the bottom/I won’t believe it’s bottomless”. That Ohio farmer hurt no-one but himself; his wife and children were well rid of him on the evidence of that song.

The narrator of ‘Glow Worm’ is a different beast. This fanatical explorer of the weird slavishly builds himself a vessel to sail inside our planet. Why ? Why is he taking this unimaginable journey through territory where he sees “enormous birds diving through the slate” and “streams of mercury” ? The steady rhythm and the depth of Brett’s voice, which grows in grim majesty as the song reaches its potentially cataclysmic conclusion, convince us that we are on an headlong rush to doom. At the end that maniacal scientist, devilish cartographer, fiendish traveller, finds the middle, takes it and holds it. And I am convinced that his next step is to crush it, just to see what happens. And that bastard knows it will mean the end:

“I saw it, a glow worm’s little light
& I reached out & caught it in the center of the night.
Tightly in my fist I held that glowing worm.
Deep down in the hollows I held the center of the world.”

From that moment of dread potential, the Sparks’ hit us with that same double-whammy as earlier, but in reverse order this time: first, the Jaunty tale of Granny Green poisoning a town (or did she ?) into endless dancing in ‘Lizard’; then the Pretty in the form of ‘Woodpecker’, a song dappled in the late-evening sunlight of mandolin. At least in ‘Woodpecker’ there is a narrator for whom we can feel sympathy, “Lovely Mary Sweeney”, compelled by mental illness to smash windows until one day she destroys her own mind, to find a redemption rare on this record, away from “all the things that hide inside all the pretty trees”.

From there the album heads softly to its conclusion, but not without wrapping some more menace up in the open-for-listening ‘Spider’.

However cheerful this duet might sound, Brett and Rennie’s danceable waltz is a story of relentless pursuit, another reminder of the dwarfing power of the natural world. Throughout this album we are constantly reminded by Brett’s inimitable and solid-as-a-rock voice and Rennie’s rich, imagery-laden lyrics, of the colossal energy surrounding us. Yes – the mud and the earth and rivers and forests make us seem like the miniatures that we are, but the truth in this album is that in amongst the limitless earth, air, fire and water are the tiny agents of our demise. Nature’s warriors are small, but they are many: the ants, the worms, the birds and here “that little black spider”:

“Rustling from the bushes, creeping from the leaves
every awful creature came a crawling over me.
I crushed them & killed them, but they came all the more
so I ran in my nightshirt out onto the lawn,
but I tripped up on a tree root & they swarmed from the weeds.
A million little teeth tore me to pieces.”

And once nature has feasted on us, we become part of its awesome army, part of the “many and nothing” that will one day “crawl up on your knee”. It’s easy, listening to this intently, to feel the fear creeping over you. What was that ? Did you feel something tiptoeing across your skin ? Was that something under your shirt, on your back ? Can you hear the scrabble of tiny feet and claws…?

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