The familiar yet fresh Handsome Family are at it again on Last Days of Wonder. Husband and wife team Brett (music) and Rennie (lyrics) Sparks utilize most of the same elements as on their previous 10 years of recorded output, right down to the chintzy nature calendar artwork. But their stylistic consistency isn’t due to lack of ideas, but rather an unwavering commitment to their best strengths: Brett’s melodic country-politan and dust-bowl cowboy tunes written around Rennie’s realistically creepy and creepily realistic narratives.
Since stripping away the noisier tendencies of their first two efforts on 1998’s breakthrough Through the Trees, the Handsome Family have settled into their unique groove, with modest and subtle additions to their singular sound along the way, from the tuba-led German oompah of “The Woman Downstairs” to the choral experiments on 2003’s Singing Bones. Mellotron, bowed wine glasses, and trombone are added to the mix on Last Days of Wonder, notably on “All the Time in Airports”, but the focus is still on Brett Sparks’ honeyed rumble of a voice. By pop music standards, Sparks’ baritone is bizarre and abrasive, which may have helped keep the Handsome Family on the fringe of the more twangy indie-rock radar. But he’s not that far left of a straight-up country and western crooner, his voice warm, sonorous, and smooth. He sounds rhinestone perfect on the saloon jazz of “After We Shot the Grizzly”, and the nocturnal “White Lights”.
The songs are all variations on tried ‘n’ trad folk and country progressions, full of somber choruses, sing-along refrains, and storytelling verses, updated by a mixture of digital and analog recording equipment and instrumentation. Similarly, Rennie Sparks’ lyrics blend history and the natural world with ubiquitous modern iconography. Boiled down to its essence, one could say the album is about death and air travel, which are seemingly everywhere on Last Days. “Your Great Journey” opens the album with a list of the expired, “... four million tons of hydrogen / exploding on the sun / ... the whisper of the termites / building castles in the dust”, which Sparks compares to the listener’s own post mortem, “You’re no longer leaving footprints / You left your wallet on the bus / Your great journey has begun.” Verse two invokes that inevitable ghosthood “when automatic sinks in airports / No longer see your hands.” The line is representative of Sparks’ best work, as it demystifies its subject through humor and realistic details most writers pass by.
“After We Shot the Grizzly” takes place “after the airship crashed,” in a scenario far more grim than that of Lost, and far, far less sexy. Human and animal deaths pile up as the passengers vie with each other for survival, “We built a raft from skin and bones / Only five could safely float / The others stood upon the shore / They screamed and threw sharp stones / Yes Mary, they threw the sharpest stones.” Each verse ends with a similar reference to Mary, who by the end of the song is alone with the narrator in the waves. The dreadfulness of the story is completely offset, however, by its loping melody and carefree atmosphere. Jazzy guitar and banjo flit through the song like butterflies, supporting a tune more befitting lines about margaritas and cheeseburgers than finding human skulls and huddling in the gloam. But the Handsome Family, as the country music equivalent of Edward Gorey, mine more from the combination of darkness and levity than from either on its own.
“Bowling Alley Bar” seems straight-forward enough with its litany of white trash images from that most white trash of drinking establishments, “Skinny girls in tight red jeans / Kicking cigarette machines / That old woman all alone dirty dancing by the phones”. But just as “Grizzly” undermines cuts its scariness with breezy charm, “Bowling Alley Bar” reveals itself to be more than just a setting ripe with easy targets. It’s actually quite romantic, centering its love story around a pair of cheap sunglasses worn by Donna, the song’s addressee. “I’m so sorry Donna / Sorry about your sunglasses / I didn’t mean to step on them / I didn’t mean to laugh when you cried” Sparks sings on the buildup to the chorus. Later he mentions that “You could never see the stars with those plastic sunglasses on” while they “[drove] circles at 3 am / Throwing rocks at mailboxes.” If the scenes of bored rural life still feel ultimately campy, the chorus declares “It was never a waste of time to get drunk by your side / And watch the fallen pins set up right again”, effectively turning the fat man’s sport into a metaphor for the redeeming qualities of love.
Although their entire catalog this far is remarkably solid, Last Days of Wonder probably one-ups its predecessors as a consistent band’s most consistent album. The themes that thread their way through the record turn up in every song, from the slow disintegration of inventor Nicola Tesla in “Tesla’s Hotel Room” to the central image of a drive-through fast-food transaction on “Somewhere Else to Be”. By the album’s end it becomes clear that the unifying idea behind Last Days isn’t sweet dreams or flying machines in pieces on the ground, it’s that “there [is] mystery singing from everything: the strip mall, the highway, the boarded-up skating rink.” Yep, everything.