Pennyblack Music

The Handsome Family have been making their own unique brand of Gothic Americana for over fifteen years now. Up until this, their eighth studio album, there hasn’t been much change musically in the world of the husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks who perform under the band name of The Handsome Family.

With Brett supplying both his trademark deep, dark vocals and music it was left to Rennie to write the lyrics to their songs. Rennie is one of those lyricists who doesn’t so much compose songs but actually writes short stories which for the most part were as dark and mysterious as the music her partner created to frame her words. But for all the mystery and shadows looming over their songs and despite Rennie’s seemingly obsession with death and the dark underbelly of life, the duo never wrote a song that was over-dreary or plodding. For all the gloom they portrayed there was a sense of lightness woven into their songs. They were masters of the murder ballad type song for sure but there was always a pretty tune to hear somewhere along the line.

It comes as some surprise though that with ‘Honey Moon’ the duo have finally deserted their tales of gloom and are celebrating twenty years of marriage by writing a dozen love songs. Brett has also taken the bold move of composing music that has a much broader sweep than any of their previous albums.

As much as it is to be admired that the Handsome Family have abandoned a formula that has served them extremely well over their previous seven albums it’s a fact that a few hardcore fans won’t find a place for this latest collection in their Top 5 Handsome Family albums. Brett and Rennie have released at least two classic albums in ‘The Last Days Of Wonder’ and ‘Through The Trees’ but ‘Honey Moon’ honestly, for all its beauty, doesn’t match those albums.

Strange as it may seem it could well be because there is no body count or that when it comes to writing love-based songs that Rennie drops some of the detailed story-telling that we have come to love the Handsome Family for. While it doesn’t even come close to being a bad album, ‘Honey Moon’ during initial playing at least is the least satisfying album we have heard so far from this talented duo.

There are excellent songs of course. ‘The Winding Corn Maze’ (what? You seriously expected Rennie to write a straight-forward love song?) is a perfect example of past glories, but there are fewer classic Handsome Family tunes on this album than on any of their previous ones. There’s a feeling that while they may attract a new breed of listeners with this album of love songs, and, let’s be honest, as mentioned above an album of love songs Handsome Family style is not the usual over-sentimental dross that one usually associates with romantic songs, just as many will find the change a little hard to accept to begin with.

The lyrics are still worthy of attention; in fairness anyone would be hard-pushed to name another band that could present an album of romantic-based songs with such thought-provoking lyrics as Rennie writes. But for the first time ever here is at least one Handsome Family fan who has had to program an album by this duo to avoid certain tracks. ‘The Loneliness Of Magnets’ springs readily to mind. One wonders if Brett and Rennie, on this song, had tongues firmly in cheeks or if the song was added to make up the numbers. The thing is we all know Mr and Mrs Sparks are capable of so much more than songs like the above mentioned as indeed they prove when a tune like ‘My Friend’ comes around.

It seems that in their quest to make an album that had a completely different theme and feel to their previous releases quality control took a short break on a couple of songs.

We should never take our favourite artists to task for attempting something new and at the end of the day apart from a couple of misjudged forays into other musical territories the major thing that is different about ‘Honey Moon’ is the lyrics and maybe the time was right for the band to try something different. It’s a move that has far from failed, it was just unexpected and right now, although not the weakest Handsome Family album I have a strong feeling that ‘Honey Moon’ won’t be played as often as some of their previous collections by some of us who have been there from the beginning.

But then again, what do I know ? As always there are two sides to every argument and the people I have played ‘Honey Moon’ to who would have run away from most previous Handsome Family albums have embraced these twelve songs with open arms. So maybe Brett and Rennie have made the right move after all. Here’s to the next twenty guys…

Malcolm Carter