The wilderness in the title of the Handsome Family’s first new set in four years is the one found in fairy tales, Flannery O’Connor stories, and unsettling dreams. It’s a deep, dark, weird place where wolves and wonders lurk, and it’s vaster and more ancient than civilization or even humanity itself, threatening to swallow any who dare enter. That it’s a metaphorical forest only makes it that much more dangerous. This is familiar territory for the Handsome Family—Albuquerque, New Mexico’s husband-and-wife songwriting duo Brett and Rennie Sparks. They’ve been exploring it for two decades across nine albums of rootsy, literary country-rock that’s a little like a collaboration between Hank Williams and Edgar Allan Poe. After taking a side trip with a collection of love songs on 2009’s Honey Moon, the Sparks plunge back into the woods where the trees rise wild for their latest, returning with 12 tales of mystery and imagination that form one of the strongest, most cohesive albums of their career.
For their songcraft, the Sparks divide the work between words and music. Rennie writes the lyrics, and Brett handles the sound—recording and producing in their converted-garage home studio, playing a impressive array of instruments from clawhammer banjo to mandolin to ukulele, and topping off the songs with his oaky baritone, a near-perfect vehicle for his wife’s poetic, contemplatively eerie stories. A penchant for mid-tempo country ballads has sometimes made Handsome Family albums seem too similar, and while Wilderness doesn’t stray far from that template, it stays lively by weaving in a wealth of other styles, including Beatles-esque pop, bossa nova rhythm, and traditional American folk.
But what really sets the Handsome Family apart are Rennie’s admirably crafted, compact, and allusive lyrics, which are less traditional verse-chorus-verse than short stories in song form, musing on the beauty and brutality of nature, the murky depths of the human heart, and forgotten tidbits of American history and myth. (These are topics she elaborates on in a companion book of essays and art that’s included in Wilderness’ box-set version.) A loose-knit concept album, each song on Wilderness is titled after a different animal—“Flies,” “Frogs,” “Eels,” etc. But Rennie is not so much a naturalist as a supernaturalist, and uses the overarching theme as a jumping-off point into the surreal. “Octopus” begins with helpful facts about the habitat and feeding habits of the eight-armed cephalopods, but soon enough conjures visions of tentacles beckoning across the night sky: “I’d follow those dancing limbs to the spinning edge of the sky / Where all the boats fall off the world into the octopus’ eye,” she writes, simultaneously evoking both the sunny optimism of the Beatles’ “Octopus’ Garden” and the hypnotic draw toward madness in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call Of Cthulhu.” Elsewhere, she spins tales of giant owls taking over the mansion of a hermit who’s losing his grip on reality, and of a village devastated by a plague of uncontrollable dancing that blames its descent into naked savagery on witchcraft, and might even be right. In “Spider,” civilization is even more literally stripped away as the song’s narrator is eaten alive by army ants and yet somehow survives, his consciousness becoming a part of the insect horde itself.
Not that it’s all dark—“Eels” is quietly graceful, and “Glow Worm” builds up a sense of awe and wonder in its descriptions of a fantastical journey to the center of the earth. “Woodpecker” celebrates the odd but true criminal career of Mary Sweeney, an unbalanced woman who became briefly infamous for a spree of window-smashing throughout Wisconsin in 1896. Rennie suggests that Sweeney’s vandalism may have been, to Sweeney at least, a form of art—freeing the beautiful shards of glass from their prisons of wood. And in likening Sweeney to a woodpecker, Rennie also implies that she herself is a kindred spirit: “She couldn’t help but see all the things that hide inside all the pretty trees.”