Rats, fleas and serial killers - these are a few of Rennie Sparks’ favorite things.
The lyricist for the brilliantly morbid duo known as the Handsome Family writes with pleasure about things that make most people flinch. “Rats get a bad rep,” she says. “They help each other and they have a sense of humor. A documentary on the BBC showed that if you tickle them, they giggle.
“Maybe I’m a little strange,” Sparks allows. “I get rats, but I don’t get people.”
Luckily, a growing cult of people get both her and her husband Brett Sparks, who, together, make up one of the smartest and most challenging groups in the alterna-country music universe.
Over the last 11 years the Handsome Family (whose name aims to cross the Carter Family with the Manson Family) has issued eight albums, most recently 2006’s astonishing “Last Days of Wonder.” On it, Rennie matches lyrics of punishing clarity to Brett’s spindly country ballads. The music has a parched purity. It’s rickety, raw and delicately beautiful.
Rennie’s words boast the visual specificity of a screenplay. “I mostly blame my writing style on spending a year writing for the Sears catalogue about women’s ugly underwear,” she says. “I had to use the nicest words to describe the worst bras and underpants. I got to be really good at picking just the right adjectives.”
Instead of girdles, Sparks now writes often about death and destruction. In the song “Your Great Journey,” a character wanders through a purgatory between the waking life and eternity. In “Beautiful William,” a man disappears, leaving disquieting clues, while in “After We Shot the Grizzly” a group of castaways faces increasingly gruesome ends.
Rennie and Brett draw key inspiration from old murder ballads and bloody Celtic odes. “Art should let us safely explore our tragedies,” Rennie says. “A song can let you deal with violent feelings without having to actually go out and murder somebody.”
To Sparks, bringing oblivion close isn’t a way to be shocking or perverse, it’s a way to make living more vivid.
“Life is very much about the fact that we’re dying all the time,” she says. “Yet we still manage to find purpose and a sense of wonder in the everyday. The world, to me, is beautiful but also violent and scary. I’m just trying to capture what it feels like to be alive.”
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