The Great Depression

Brett and Rennie Sparks usher The Handsome Family into its Twilight years

Brett and Rennie Sparks--the husband and wife duo who record her lyrics and his music as The Handsome Family--often get accused of being depressing. Or dark, or morbid or macabre. Take your pick. They all lead to the same conclusion: Why can't they just write one happy song? "That's when I throw up my hands and say, 'C'mon, it's funny,'" Rennie says. "It's unbalanced when you have a song that's only sad or only funny. Life never feels that way for more than a second or two. And I try to make it feel like it feels to be alive. That's kind of the point of writing stuff is to try to figure out what it is that we're doing here and what it feels like. And people get worried about it. 'Is it OK to laugh at that song?' I mean, was it OK to have a show called Hogan's Heroesabout World War II? These things happen because of human nature. That's how we kind of wrap our brains around things."

In the past, Rennie has processed the complexities of life by writing about Lenore, who is carried away by crows, the birds' black beaks tangled in her hair, lifting her above the ground, and a milkman in love with the moon who is pummeled by bottles and bricks thrown by passersby who don't understand his love. Brett takes these very short "short stories," wraps his warm baritone voice around them and adds instrumental layers as complex as some of Rennie's metaphors and as simple as a washboard and an acoustic guitar. While other bands write songs about love, love and, well, love, The Handsome Family has dwelled often in the shadows where everyday occurrences meet the unexplained. Death and fairy tale-like portrayals of animals and nature as almost otherworldly have been central themes in the duo's Carrot Top Records albums such as 1995's Odessa, 1996's Milk and Scissors, 1998's Through the Trees and 2000's In the Air. But as life in the urban sprawl of Chicago wore on Rennie, she began looking for the things that made life in the city bearable. Those things inhabit Twilight, The Handsome Family's fifth album, released last week on Carrot Top, along with the usual animals, death and nature.

"I used to like to make a lot of noise,” The Handsome Family's Brett Sparks says. "I like to make something nice now. Something I can stand to listen to."
Mark Owen
"I used to like to make a lot of noise,” The Handsome Family's Brett Sparks says. "I like to make something nice now. Something I can stand to listen to."

"I started thinking of how things like streetlights sort of replace stars in my mind," Rennie says. "Because when you look up you can't see any stars in the city. But sometimes streetlights can be pretty. And little weird things like pigeons, that usually you say are icky, icky animals, but you sometimes get to the point where a pigeon can be beautiful just because they're the only birds you're going to see all day. So in a way I think it makes the everyday things more magical. I think they're like these primordial sort of images you carry around with you of the forest and the wild world or nature, even when you don't have any contact with it...I found pigeons and streetlights very sustaining at certain points in my life."

Twilight is also like the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Through the Trees and continued with In the Air. On the surface, Through the Trees focused on, as the title implies, the forest. Likewise, In the Air involved stories about the sky. Twilight, Rennie says, is about "where things disappear, about the little moments inside you" and "seeing more parking lots than you do trees. Seeing more domesticated animals than wild animals. Seeing more lights and TVs than stars."

That's not the case for Rennie and Brett anymore. Two months ago, the couple left Chicago--the city that had given them countless accolades as one of its best local bands and had served as a base camp between almost continuous tours--and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a town where, Rennie says, the Wild West still exists to some degree. There, the mountains and the clear sky are never out of sight, robbers still hold up banks, and bears occasionally come in from the mountains, break down doors of residential homes and devour little old ladies. It's also a place where Brett and Rennie can have a house with a back yard, their own slice of the nature often referenced in their songs. "Even birds in the bird feeder in my yard are really important when you haven't had that for a long time," Rennie says. "And then I've just been planting things, just these really simple things; they're almost suburban things you don't have in a city. You plant something in your yard and you put up a bird feeder. I'm just so happy to do that."

Now they're back on the road, touring the United States for a month before heading to Europe for another month of shows to support Twilight. "There are good and bad parts of touring," Rennie says. "It's really nice to drive a long way to an unknown city and know there are people waiting to see you. It's a really nice feeling, makes you feel like you're really doing something worthwhile. But, you know, you do feel like you're living the life of a truck driver, too. 'Cause, you know, it's just us and the truck drivers at the truck stops eating at Subway every day. It's not very glamorous."

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