Handsome Family: Dark Matters

Brett and Rennie Sparks. Photo by Jesse Littlebird

Rennie Sparks made up a new word when writing “Gentleman,” a quirky period-piece song off the Handsome Family’s latest album, Unseen. “From tempered glass I built the apparatus to alight the presence of phantasmus.” “It’s a Latinate version of phantasm,” she explains. “If you created a scientific order of phantasms, it would be a phantasmus.”

Videos by American Songwriter

“I don’t believe that’s a word in any language,” says Brett Sparks, her husband as well as the band’s vocalist and arranger.

“It should be a word,” she insists.

This is the way the duo work. Rennie drafts lyrics full of vivid and visceral imagery, fantastical scenes and oddball characters, while Brett sets them to music that is equally imaginative and sings them in a low, grainy, perfectly deadpan baritone. For 20 years now they’ve been traipsing the line between the real and the surreal, the everyday and the enigmatic, occasionally categorized as “alt-country” but more accurately described as true American originals. Unseen, the couple’s eleventh album, conjures a world where a word like phantasmus is not only a logical addition to the lexicon but nothing really out of the ordinary.

With its barrage of harpsichords and a chord progression that’s more Bach than Buck Owens, “Gentlemen” is an inquiry into the supernatural, using William Crookes, a 19th-century scientist and spiritualist, to pinpoint the intersection between our world and some other, as-yet-unknown realm. Like all of their songs, it’s imaginative and eccentric, even a bit funny, but also deadly serious: Rene Magritte by way of Grant Wood.

“It’s a fascinating time in history,” she says, “when science and the supernatural were still entwined. But we’re so rigid now. You hear physicists talking all day long about dark matter, but they have no idea what it is.”

“That’s weirder to me,” says Brett.

There is certainly an occult element to the music of the Handsome Family — not in the sense that there are men in black robes worshiping obscure demons (although there might be some), but more in the sense of evoking something important yet unnamable that lies just beyond our senses, some universal truth just outside the reach of our minds, some phantasmus floating in front of our third eye. On Unseen there are songs about miniature horses, melting casinos, woodland sirens, strange red doors, nagging emotions that haven’t been named, and stories that never resolve in the expected ways, if they resolve at all.

“Art is supposed to make your world bigger, not smaller,” says Rennie. “People get uneasy with that feeling. It takes them into uncharted waters. They start having daydreams. They want it to be contained and it shouldn’t be.”

This squirrelly evasiveness occasionally causes consternation among listeners, who struggle to detect some concrete meaning when even the musicians aren’t necessarily sure what the songs are about. “Right after that song hit, right after that show was popular, we got all these emails from people who wanted to know what the song means,” says Brett. That song is “Far From Any Road,” off their 2003 album Singing Bones, which was the opening-credits theme song for that show: HBO’s True Detective. “One guy said, I’ve got a job. I’ve got kids. I don’t have time to fuck around with this. I just want to know what the song is about!”

“So he could make it go away,” says Rennie.

“It’s not about anything. Or it is. Whatever. I don’t know. Rennie wrote back and said the answer is fourteen.”

“People think you’re being facetious. Why would you bother spending a year writing and recording a song if you can sum it up in a sentence? Art shouldn’t be reductive. It doesn’t work that way.”

Although Brett won’t mention that song and that show by name, they did introduce the Sparks’ strange musical concoctions to a much wider audience and in some weird ways informs the new album, particularly opener “Gold.” A burglar lies on the ground behind a deserted Stop ‘n’ Shop, a bullet in his gut and the sun setting on the horizon. Around him float dollar bills. Nothing happens in the song; it’s merely a scene, a visual postcard: time stopped for a minute so we can all look around at this tragedy.

“We have a lot of senseless crime in this town,” says Rennie, referring to the couple’s adopted hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “People get shot over nothing here. Two weeks ago somebody got stabbed in the neck over a game of beer pong. That game doesn’t have to end that way.”

The song is all mystery — not the kind that detectives solve, but the kind that listeners must ponder. “That’s the beauty of songs,” says Rennie. “You can take them apart for 100 years and you’ll never get the essential explanation. The parts never add up to the whole. It will remain forever beyond understanding.”

Role Models: Taylor Goldsmith on Will Oldham