After a seven year gap The Handsome Family return with a wonderful album which draws the listener into their uniquely dark universe.
It’s hard to believe that The Handsome Family, Brett and Rennie Sparks, have been delighting us for 30 years now with their unique and deliciously dark world-view. The pair seem not to have aged over the years although, announcing this album, their 11th, Rennie says of the band’s longevity, “We’re astonished to be breathing… let alone still be inspired to write songs and sing together.” Inspired is the word to latch on to here as the duo (alongside long time associate Jason Toth and various others) are on top form as they unveil the latest chapter in their ongoing amalgamation of the Handsome Family bestiary and their version of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
‘Hollow’ may have richer textures and a fuller sound than we’ve come to expect from this crepuscular pair but there’s no mistaking them for anyone else. The opening song ‘Joseph’ is classic Handsome Family with its American gothic structure. The song grew from some words apparently screamed by Rennie in her sleep which Brett noted down, leading to this spooky invocation of a séance of sorts. There’s something which sounds like a mellotron here and it appears again in the following ‘Two Black Shoes’ with its hypnotic, almost trip hop groove, as Brett sings of a depopulated landscape in an almost JG Ballard fashion. This reflects the album’s genesis as much of it was written during the pandemic and there’s a sense of the importance of the natural world taking over as civilisation ground to a halt on a couple of the songs here. ‘Skunks’ is a spectral advert for pest controllers while ‘Shady Lake’ has a menagerie of creatures getting on with life including two swans conjoined, their necks adopting the love heart symbolism so beloved by greeting card manufacturers. The Handsome’s have always found ways to explore odd quirks of nature and on the old time folk swirls of ‘The Oldest Water’ they dive into the primordial world of an underground sea found in a Canadian cave, but the icing on the cake here is the deeply immersive ‘Strawberry Moon’. It’s a gorgeous song with the pair singing of watching nocturnal critters scampering around as they lounge on their back porch, the creatures incidental almost to the pair’s swooning affection for each other as Rennie makes one of her few vocal appearances here, wrapped around Brett’s voice amidst the chorus of cicadas who chirrup throughout this blissful song.
It’s tempting to consider that the harpsichord driven ‘King Of Everything’, ostensibly about a top predator, might be a metaphor for the absurd boasts of a certain Trumpian character and that the loopy Country & Western styled ‘Invisible Man’ is lampooning those who stormed the US capital when that character was suitably disposed of. This is conjecture of course but the theory is only strengthened when, at the end of the album, and again using a country themed approach, they sing that it’s time for “the rats to abandon the ship, time for the billionaires to board that jet, it’s time to say goodnight.”
That said, ‘Hollow’ finds The Handsome Family at the top of their game. No one does americana gothic better than they do and it’s great to have them back.