Ten albums and 20 years in, the Handsome Family haven't run out of odd tales or memorable melodies.
Ten albums in, the Handsome Family haven't run out of odd tales or memorable melodies. Unseen continues the duo's gothic folk and country aesthetic, filling out the sound with some friendly help. Along the way, they introduce us to a slew of new characters (sometimes just to slay them in three or four minutes). If Brett and Rennie Sparks know their sound and know how to do what they do, it's because they do it so well. With all its soft unquiet, Unseen stands with the most captivating of the pair's previous work.
The group's songwriting matches Brett's music with Rennie's words, and they've mastered patient collaboration. These songs slowly reveal loss, surprise and violence, but they take their time getting there, whether across a line or through an entire track.
“Gold” opens the album with a baritone description of “a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face” so placidly delivered that, despite the ominous words, it's a surprise to learn of the singer actually “lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut.” It's a meditative number, with all the pieces of the story we want to know not told, because they aren't relevant. As the coyotes close in, the singer's hallucinatory optimism is transporting, and all the more heart-wrenching because of it. We end up siding with a masked criminal simply because he so thoughtfully describes a girl's hair.
That sort of complete immersion focuses each of the songs on Unseen. “Tiny Tina” walks us through a state fair with both wonder and regret. It sounds like the sad version of a carnival, even though the meditation on missing a sideshow seems absurd, as if a reference to Li'l Sebastian. At the same time, the singers deliver their lines with zero winking. It's just an odd tale of mild regret on a dusty midway, and its character honesty gives it an off-kilter feel that makes it work.
The disc maintains that off-balance approach, whether in the Victorian spiritualism of “Gentlemen” (which could easily come from a true believer but has to be a con) or the siren calls of the matched “Underneath the Falls” and “The Sea Rose”. The teen angel sound of “The Red Door” hides a menacing narrator, where love mixes with mystery and likely horror. If someone tells you not to open the door, don't open the door, and don't trust the man with the key.
But if the Handsome Family's character's are dangerous, misled, or damaged, the duo itself is not so unreliable. Twenty years into their career, they have a higher profile thanks to True Detective, but they still sing from the margins, crafting alluring characters and sounds. You can trust them to open the doors for you, and if you end up with murders or ghosts or bullet wounds, you shouldn't be surprised. The only things that should truly have you worried are the things they leave unseen.