Musically speaking, one of the best parts of the breakout success of “True Detective” is the window it opens into the world of the Handsome Family. The husband-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks composed “Far From Any Road,” used each week in the HBO mystery’s opening credits, but that tells only a tiny part of their story.
For the last two decades the pair has been using the blueprints of old-time country and western balladry to create dark but often lovely narratives set in the present.
Featuring songs in which worms “circle like sharks” waiting for death to come, their best work offers songcraft with the narrative drive of short stories. With lyrics on death and the afterlife, drunken heartache, twin sisters, benders in hotel bars and dogs chained to trees, the woes of the world’s tallest man and the last few moments of Amelia Earhart’s life (“… she remembered picking lemons with William Randolph Hearst,” for your information), their tight compositions certainly deserve wider recognition, even if many of them call for a stiff drink afterward.
Rennie writes most of the lyrics, and they’re something to behold. She was educated as a fiction writer under Charles Baxter at the University of Michigan, and had she not gone the way of the lyric her talent would have no doubt brought her acclaim through other platforms. Lucky for us, her gift with quick narrative found its perfect voice through guitarist/singer/long-suffering husband Brett, whose compositional skills give his wife’s words shape .
Below are 10 other songs besides “Far from Any Road.”
A vivid tale from a wife to a husband that occurs over the course of Christmas Day, “So Much Wine” is the perfect introduction to the Family’s world. Filled with morbid wit about a harrowing few hours, the song opens as an already drunk spouse has thrown his clothes out the window, burned his hair and walked over chairs. “But when you fell asleep with blood on your teeth,” sing the pair in unison, “I got in my car and drove away.”
The two carry into the chorus with a tender urgency: “Listen to me, butterfly/There’s only so much wine you can drink in one life/But it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass.” Perhaps best known as one of a few Handsome Family songs Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy performs live – they all lived in Chicago at the same time – “So Much Wine” is a little pearl of destruction. Its cutaway to a field beneath stars is perfect: “As meteors died and shot across the sky, I thought about your sad, shining eyes.”
This list could be made entirely of drinking songs, but one of the most enduring of the lot is “Drunk by Noon,” a pessimistic ditty about life spent wallowing that opens with a surreal scene featuring “a poodle that thought he was a cowboy” and moves to a series of lines as funny as they are defeatist. “Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird, just to remind myself I’ll never fly,” sings Brett in rich baritone. “Sometimes I burn my arms with cigarettes, just to pretend I won’t scream when I die.” The singer confesses that sometimes he can’t wait to get cancer, “at least then I’d get to watch TV all day.”
Then, the bummer chorus: “If my life was as long as the moon, I’d still be jealous of the sun/If my life lasted only one day, I’d still be drunk by noon.”
This much we know: The mysterious man in “Beautiful William” drives a convertible, has short curly hair and wears gold rings. He vanished one morning before dawn, and didn’t bother to turn off the lights or the sprinkler system. All this information is conveyed in the first few lines, along with a mention of two different women, Polly from Red River and Rose from Green Falls. They are pretty upset. “Why would he leave us/Why would he leave us this way?” The question is never answered in “Beautiful William,” but no matter. The Polaroid moment feels like something David O. Russell might direct.
A song about the invisible birds who control daily life (you don’t know about the invisible birds that control daily life?), “Birds You Cannot See” imagines the unsung heroics of the feathered. Using Edward Gorey-esque imagery, Brett sings of “birds in the darkness that douse electrical fires” at nursing homes, of others “that nest in wooden crutches, eyepatches and bandages, broken spinal columns, pots of withered plants.” The chorus: “Birds you cannot see, filling every tree, falling out of closets and perched on the hands of dying men.”
Haunted retailers are too seldom the subject of country songs. “24 Hour Store” remedies that with a tale of other invisible creatures: ghosts and angels who roam the aisles while night owls shop. “The sleepless and lost/Push their squeaking carts/Down the rows of clothes/And see nothing at all.” (Warning: the clip above contains one instance of incidental cussing near the beginning. )
6. “My Ghost”
Written by Brett early in his career after checking out of a mental institution, “My Ghost” is a truly raw work. It takes place while he’s strapped to a twin bed contemplating his circumstance. “Here in the bipolar ward/If you shower you get a gold star,” he sings matter-of-factly. Brett’s ghost has been causing problems: “He staggers and reels/runs up credit card bills/And clogs up the toilet with bottles of pills.” Hence, one assumes, the institutionalization.
The only hope of being unstrapped comes as part of a deal offered, presumably by his caretaker. “I won’t get any cookies or tea/Til I stop quoting Nietszche/And brush my teeth/And comb my hair.” Bipolar blues don’t get any more hard-earned as this one.
Another song from my favorite Handsome Family album, “Through the Trees,” “Cathedrals” is a romance as only Brett and Rennie could create. Set in Cologne, Germany, near a cathedral that looks like a spaceship, Brett wonders on the futility of building something so permanent amid lives so fleeting. Halfway through the lyrics move to a fiberglass castle in Wisconsin “where kids race go-carts around a moat.” The two visited there one weekend, he sings, “hoping to find love under the icicles.” Predictably, instead they end up drinking in an empty bar. The night wasn’t a total wash, though, sings Brett: “Stumbling drunk we crawled back to our motel room/and I fell against you and felt your beating heart.” Ah, love. Note: the above version features Andrew Bird, who recently covered the Family’s ode to the end of days, “When That Helicopter Comes.”
Add Nicolai Tesla to the list of inventors too seldom celebrated in song. The inventor died a pauper’s death, a circumstance captured in “Tesla’s Hotel Room.” Our Hero is stuck eating saltines and feeding pigeons in a cheap space while “Edison and Westinghouse in silk brocade/ate Oysters Rockefeller with French champagne.” While there, Tesla is described drawing “plans for a camera to photograph thoughts/Vacuum tube lights, wireless phones.” Then he gets hit by a car.
A truly strange vision of Heaven in which “grandmother waits for you with a pair of new shoes in a land where the leaves never brown,” this song from “In the Air” updates an old country conceit – the glory that awaits us in heaven – with wit and joy.
The Handsome Family’s most recent studio album came out in 2013. Called “Wilderness,” each of the album’s dozen song titles are of a different creature: Gulls, woodpeckers, owls, eels, frogs and glow worms are among those earning lyrical praise. Predictably, death permeates the record. Songwriter Stephen Foster’s violent demise “in a flophouse in the Bowery” is captured in “Wildebeest” who, “in a bitter fever of gin,” smashed his head into a sink.
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