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The Handsome Family | Twilight (Loose)
Written and recorded while preparing their move from Chicago to the New Mexico desert, the Handsomes' fifth album finds them raising their game, refining their sound, adding texture and complexity to what already is an impressive body of work. 'Twilight' starts with one of the best songs of the year, The Snow White Diner, a Richard Ford or Ray Carver type vignette which has the narrator eating hash browns in a diner while, outside, a car is dragged from the river containing the bodies of a mother and her children. Inside the diner life goes on in minute and prosaic detail as hordes of spectators gather outside to watch the bodies plop from the wreck. It's a quietly devastating piece of writing, sung with great conviction by Brett over a perfectly weighted piano riff. You wonder how it can get better. But it does. Passenger Pigeons begins with Brett singing the Paul Auster-like line "Ever since you moved out / I've been living in the park / I'd rather talk to the wind / Than an empty apartment." Then the chorus introduces the metaphor of the passenger pigeon, hunted to extinction, evoking both the Holocaust and the endless plains of bleached Buffalo bones rotting in the Western sun. It's a wonderful instance of Rennie's detailed, nuanced lyricism embued with a novelist's sweep and sense of grandeur. Throughout this record, Rennie Sparks keeps coming up with incandescent metaphors and moving images to convey things rarely mentioned in most contemporary music. Take A Dark Eye's vision of things gone forever, similar in tone to The Band's yearning requiem for an older, vanished age, 'Cahoots.' Like that album, 'Twilight' focuses on the collision between the pastoral and the urban; parking lots covering prairies, sewers running through Indian graveyards, lizards reclining on the supermarket shelves - it's a thrillingly vivid world of danger and desolation. Nature seen not as some hippy idyll but more as a Faulknerian brute, unforgiving and without conscience, ready to rip the very throat out of civilisation. In a time when so many records are filled with pathetically weak and adolescent lyrics, 'Twilight' lays down the gauntlet, resolutely adult and blazingly original. Cold, Cold, Cold is like Little Feat subjected to Satanic Ritual Abuse, a mercurial, arboreal ghost story with an Ingmar Bergman-esque chill while Gravity tells the story of a man who hears angels whispering inside of potatoes. The musical palette will be familiar to fans of the band; drum machine, banjos, auto harp and piano while Brett's voice is better than ever, swooping and sliding through the melodies, (and, oh, what sad melodies they are) crushed by ennui and disaffection in There Is No Sound (which could be a 'Scott 3' outtake) or yearning and choked, full of pathos and resignation on the heartbreaking I Will be There. The last two songs are particularly special. So Long is a litany of dead and abused animals ("So long to my dog Snickers who ate Christmas tinsel / So long to Mr. Whiskers who jumped out of a window / And to the family of gerbils who chewed out of their cage / And the little brown rabbit I ran over by mistake") that's strangely moving while Peace In The Valley Once Again describes a post-apocalyptic wasteland where nature has taken over and they've closed the last shopping mall - it's a stunning vision, worthy of Ballard, nature in all its terrifying immanence - and a great way to end an album. Now that they've moved to the Southwest, one can only guess at how that tortuously ravaged and cratered landscape will affect Rennie's writing but it's definitely something to look forward to. The desert awaits.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002