What do you do when your other half, in the dead of night, begins to mumble, groan and then scream, “Come into the circle Joseph. There’s no moon tonight”? Well, if you’re Brett Sparks and your other half is the multi-instrumentalist Rennie Sparks in your alt-country duo, you make a lead song (Joseph) and then an album exploring the darker realms of nature.
That is to say, a deglossed nature sitting on the periphery of human awareness. There is no calming voice of Attenborough on these voyages to ‘The Oldest Water’, ‘Shady Lake’ or ‘To The Oaks’ where “Phantoms fly the forest / Twist up dripping ferns / Spirits in the shadows / In root and dirt and bone.”
The Handsome Family unveil their 11th studio record Hollow on Loose, further cementing it as the eminent label for Americana in the UK. Here are 11 songs to soundtrack your loveliest nightmares. An unholy marriage of The Band and the Bad Seeds, Brett and Rennie along with regular collaborators including Alex McMahon, Jason Toth and Dave Gutierrez deliver a collection of finest ‘Western Gothic’ music, as described by Brett himself.
The Sparks’ compose blue-collar songs filtered through a heavy press, producing haunting lines of tragic romance and twisted melodrama. The baritone vocals of Brett anchor the songs while the instrumental stylings of Rennie add colour to the shaded palette of her lyrics. Hollow is a record lush with leaves and shadows echoing with occult mystery; a result of two years in lockdown going stir-crazy with Brett noting: “It was the last bleak winter months, last year of the pandemic. We had been working on the record the entire time, but at this point the lockdown, isolation, and dread had sapped us of our creative energy.”
The sense of isolation permeates the album. On The King of Everything, Brett’s harpsichord provides a playful soundtrack to his lonely monarch, imagined during Rennie’s time on the back porch taking muscle-relaxants and watching white-winged doves fly among the trees. The motif is continued on the mysterious Skunks. This time a desperate business pleads for work over an eerie piano and vocal whoops; a jingle touts: “Squirrels in the basement / Raccoons in the walls / Centipedes with stingers…call us anytime at night, call us day or night.”
And throughout Hollow these Waits-ian characters and settings combine The Handsome Family’s spooky impressionism with soul, empathy and humour. The hymn-like Mothballs calls for us to “let all the moths eat all our lovely coats”. While album closer Good Night sings a lullaby that at once soothes and threatens. Over a lazy honky-tonk Brett sings, “Time for Santa to sharpen his claws, time for skin walkers, time for the saw…” The stark contrast between a symbol of joy and the ominous saw sums up this twisted family, still going strong after 28 years recording music. Here’s to many more adventures into the backwoods of the Sparks’ dark tales.