The Handsome Family Return With Western Gothic Fatalism on Hollow

Brett and Rennie Sparks’ latest album is their first since 2016

Music Reviews The Handsome Family
The Handsome Family Return With Western Gothic Fatalism on Hollow

The Handsome Family got a boost last year when Phoebe Bridgers turned in a bleak cover of their already wrenching Christmas-adjacent song “So Much Wine.” It was a nice shoutout for the husband-wife duo, yet Brett and Rennie Sparks have been making harrowing music together for 30 years. Their power remains in full effect on their latest, Hollow.

At 11 new songs, their first LP since Unseen in 2016 strikes a balance between foreboding quiet numbers and deceptively airy tracks that belie the fatalistic lyrical content. Album opener “Joseph” falls into the latter category: piano flourishes and the Sparks’ rich vocal harmonies give the song a golden, autumnal feel, but zeroing in on Brett’s vocals reveals that he’s describing what sound like preparations for some dire occult ritual. “Come into the circle, Joseph / There’s no moon tonight,” he sings, a line that began as something that Rennie said in her sleep during the pandemic. Keyboards at the start of “The King of Everything” give the song a psychedelic feel that borders on twee before guitars flow in and Brett sings about watching a bird fly free above the earth. Sounds bucolic, almost, until he gets to the part about the cat in the tall grass waiting to catch the bird, and the pain pills that have colored the whole vision.

“The King of Everything” fits into a theme that emerges throughout Hollow, where the fatalism of Rennie’s lyrics often manifests in the divide between transience and the eternal. On “Mothballs,” unadorned piano accompanies layers of mournful vocal harmonies on lyrics about the inevitability of decay and dissolution, no matter how much we try to keep it at bay. Elsewhere, “Two Black Shoes” is a study in reduced circumstances, opening in a crumbling motel and, later, moving to a cardboard box beneath an overpass. The song gleams with keyboards that chime darkly through a descending pattern, and Brett’s baritone voice is implacable, as if there’s no escape from the grim scene he’s unfolding.

Brett describes the Handsome Family’s music as “Western gothic,” and that’s certainly the case on “The Oldest Water.” A blend of guitars and Dave Gutierrez’s mandolin give the arrangement a rustic, rootsy feel on a song about pockets of ancient water dating back a billion years that were discovered in a Canadian mine—as close to eternal as you’re likely to find. There’s also a Western feel to “Good Night,” with vintage steel guitar licks accompanying the Sparks’ harmonies. The title refers to a sense of finality and, fittingly, “Good Night” is the last song on the album. Yet with descriptions of Santa Claus sharpening “his claws” and Satan snoring, the Handsome Family make sure to leave you with images vivid enough to show up later in your dreams.

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among other publications. Follow him on Mastodon or visit his website.

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