Songwriter Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family talks of how the title of their 10th album ‘Unseen’ was inspired by an incident at an airport lounge when a middle-aged business person, McDonalds in hand, sat down on her lap, swearing that he thought the chair was empty. This gave rise to thoughts about being invisible, in the sense of disappearing as a songwriter and letting the songs take on a life and perspectives of their own. In keeping with previous work, it also informs the album’s embrace of things beyond easy view, of forgotten moments, lost dreams and spiritual light.
Not that spirituality looms large on the album’s opening track, the New Mexico dust-hung twangsome Gold, where Brett Sparks wraps his baritone around the persona of the protagonist who, after a failed robbery, “woke up in a ditch behind the Stop ’n Go. Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut, watching dollar bills fly away in the dust”, bleeding out “past the last lights of town.” After gold, it only seems natural to have The Silver Light which, opening to the sound of a slot machine and featuring David Gutierrez on dobro, takes an easy waltzing stroll through some gaudy but cheap casino with its “bar shaped like a racing car” and “all you can eat buffet”, and “old men with their oxygen feeding quarters to the slots” in a song about seeing past the false gods of fortune and “the golden deer of luck” to recognise the true light “shining there in your empty hands.”
A violin welcomes the rose-tinted nostalgia and lost childhood innocence of the steady strummed Back In My Day – “We had maps that unfolded … no locks on the doors…the stars burned brighter… the music sounded better” and “everything was better, darker and deep.”
Memory and that sense of loss and regret also haunt Tiny Tina. A fluttering mandolin, xylophone (?) and brushed drums guiding a fairground waltzer as Brett sings about always wanting to see the world’s smallest titular horse at the state fair but never doing so, a metaphor for missing out something potentially wonderful for fear of disappointment.
Conversely, the sway along folksy Underneath The Falls carries almost the opposite message in the line “Don’t listen, don’t listen to the call. Turn away, away, from the whisper in the falls”. It also hints at lurking menace in “There are hunters in the hedges. There are whispers in the green. The soaking mud is hungry” and that “In heat, the old waves rise again to claim what has crawled free.” More musically upbeat, with the couple sharing lead, the shuffling The Sea Rose echoes the idea of nature’s hidden dangers and potentially fatal allure with its images of dark rocks, sirens calling sailors to the deaths amid the seaweed.
Behind its soulful feel with brass, organ, and repeated staccato piano notes, the slow march of The Red Door also draws on sea imagery and the call of things unseen “You put your ear to the whispering shells and turned away from me.”
By way of a different inspiration, but also dealing with things beyond the world we know, featuring harpsichord and bowed double bass, the stately Gentleman is a tribute to William Crookes. Crookes built the first vacuum tube in 1875 in the hope of summoning spirits to substantiate his belief that a “world of light resides just past our view.” The song recounts a séance as they rhyme apparatus with phantasmus before its rousing a capella close.
Although every track is a highlight, the tour de force arguably comes with the five-minute salvation hymnal styled King of Dust. Its image of the immediate aftermath of a car crash giving way to a meditation that, referencing Coronado, a San Diego County resort city, recalls Shelley’s poem Ozymandias in how civilizations crumble and only the desert remains in the line “there are no golden cities only trailer parks and dust and angels only fly here when you drive into the sun.”
The album ends with Green Willow Valley, which, set in the cool of the evening as cicadas sing in the oak trees, stars flicker overhead, and the singer calls for his lover to return, sounds like a campfire crooner for an existentialist singing cowboy.
Common wisdom holds that the duo’s finest album is Through The Trees. It may be time to revise that. Look and listen.
Unseen is released 16th September 2016 via Loose Music