Wonders  of the Invisible World:
The Handsome Family  and the ‘Topographical Uncanny’

Asbjørn  Grønstad
 Spring  2005

George Jones  shares a veggie burger with Jim Morrison at McDonald's, where  their order is taken by Jerry Lewis. The chef is Franz Kafka.  The background muzak is Mahler's Symphony No. 1.[i]

Gravity  is not the only force at work in this world.[ii]

This  is how it goes in the vernacular of rock journalism: the more idiosyncratic the artists and the more distinctive their sound,  the more insistent are the attempts to embellish that uniqueness  with a plethora of motley, and often crudely chiseled, monikers.  Thus, the music of The Handsome Family has been variously tagged  as alt. country, Americana, backwoods noir, post-millennial  folk, American Gothic, Appalachian folk, murderous balladry,  and, perhaps most imaginatively, "honky-pop and avant-tonk country music" (McLeod, 2000: 133). None of these descriptive labels are necessarily erroneous or even imprecise; it's just  that they seem somewhat reductive. Contemporary though hardly  conventional hymnologists of the lingering influence of the  Puritan unconscious, Brett and Rennie Sparks are the husband-and-wife  team behind the band name The Handsome Family. Over the course  of six epochal studio albums they have established themselves  as arguably the foremost practitioners of present-day American  folk music, certainly related to, yet noticeably different,  from a slew of other artists and bands whose work has made  the last decade the rock'n'roll equivalent of that kind of American literary renaissance promulgated by F.O. Matthiessen  in his landmark 1941 study.[iii]

     Enigmatically combining  the self-conscious and the authentic, the records of The Handsome  Family transcend not only country music but even the more heterogeneous  Americana genre. While fraught with tensions between the metaphysical  and the material, the spiritual and the secular, the unorthodox  folk songs of this eccentric band nevertheless envision a distinctive  and internally coherent narrative universe populated by characters  who hear angels' voices inside potatoes ("Gravity") and who are pulled under by supernatural forces to drown ("Lie Down").  What I would like to explore here are the ramifications of  the persistent emphasis on the extra-sensory and otherworldly - in  short, that which remains hidden - in the work of the Sparks.' This  thematic gravitation aligns their art with the tradition of  American Transcendentalism, whose acute sensitivity to the wonders of the invisible world is shared by The Handsome Family. Moreover, implicated in this postmodernized, Neo-transcendental  aesthetics is an overarching awareness of the unity of past  and present, as well as a sense of the inherent, fundamental  continuity of life's rich secrets. In the slow-motion waltz  of "The Forgotten Lake," for instance, "covered wagons/and  the wings of missing planes" manifest the spatial contiguity  of different pasts within the same dreamy seascape. According  to Greil Marcus, it is nothing less than a conception of "the  old, weird American" (Marcus, 2002) that The Handsome Family  brings into the present. But is this notion of a barely tangible,  sepia-tinted, and ultimately inscrutable past really just a  metaphor for that 'other country' - not that of George W. Bush  but of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne - which may  exist today underneath the veneer of mass mediated images of  corporate America?

 The recent history of American folk music  has its own shadowy signposts, releases whose significance  goes beyond the merely influential to become representative  of entire aesthetic and cultural traditions. Harry Smith's Anthology  of American Folk Music (1952), Bob Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967,  officially released in 1975), and Uncle Tupelo's No Depression (1990) are works which may make audible "the palavers  of a community of ghosts" (Marcus, 1997: 86), but they also  resonate, perhaps paradoxically, with a peculiar agelessness.  This sense of being firmly anchored in space yet adrift in  time permeates the songs of the Sparks family as well, and,  taken collectively, their four successive albums Through the Trees (1998), In  the Air (2000), Twilight (2001),  and Singing Bones (2003)  are themselves in the process of becoming the preeminent voices  of this community.[iv] But The Handsome Family is far more than just an  avatar of Marcusian Americana; in order to encompass the group's influences,  range, and preoccupations one would have to anticipate a conception of this  particular brand of American aesthetics much broader than that presently  evoked by the even eclectically folkloristic.[v] In approaching this tradition critically, it would  not be unwise to eschew the increasingly anaemic and uninformative notions  of cultural studies or popular culture. What concerns us here is a transhistorical,  inter-medial, cross-disciplinary poetics of folk noir, an art of the basement  tape which lays claim to an almost surreal, semi-mythical, and mostly imagined topography that is home to anyone from Emily Dickinson to Johnny Cash. At  the current moment The Handsome Family occupies a space that reverberates  with the crazed, distorted accents of the inhabitants and stories of this  slanted, enchanted universe.[vi]

Like so many of their peers, the Sparks  family has a much larger audience in Europe than in the States,  a situation that somehow seems oddly appropriate; artists who  evoke a forgotten, unofficial country are themselves largely  forgotten or overlooked by their own mainstream republic.[vii] When I talked to them in May 2004, Rennie and Brett  Sparks told me that they felt like expatriates, polemically invoking a connection between themselves and the artists who fled Germany in the 1930s. The analogy  divulges an unmistakable, yet hardly unexpected rhetorical slant delicately  inflected throughout the band's lyrics. Although The Handsome Family's ostensibly  hermetic world of sad milkmen and snow-white diners may appear to negate  any political propensity, their songs are in no way devoid of cultural critique  (a subject I shall return to below).

An appraisal of the work of the Handsomes  might as well begin, circuitously, in the realm of the visual.  As I write this, I am taken in by the cover of their fifth  regular album, Twilight, released by Carrot Top Records in October 2001. Different shades of grey outline a background  that accentuates a rigid formation of thin, bare, black trunks  with some empty space between them. Muted and severe, the image  is only vaguely figurative, defined more by contours than content.  What the faintly foreboding depiction immediately recalls is  in fact the titles of the band's two previous albums, Through the Trees (1998) and In the Air (2000). There are trees, to  be sure, within the frame of the former cover, a pine wood  winding its way along a lake and climbing toward a majestic mountain, patches of snow near its summit. Unlike the Twilight image,  that of Through the Trees is  rendered in a realist mode. Its focal point - the main object - is  not the trees referred to in the title but the towering mountaintop;  and the lake down in the left corner one hardly even notices at a first glance. The subsequent album In the Air presents an image that  - despite the spatial dominance of gently  sloping green fields - is fraught with a sense of rarefied  weightlessness. Its vista appears calm and vertiginous at the  same time. Gazing at the scene for a prolonged period one may  actually start to feel a slight twitching in the stomach. Reminiscent  of the work of Grant Wood, particularly his Haying and New Road (both 1939), In the  Air conveys a dizzying openness that is serene yet menacing.  Try placing a copy of Fairport Convention's Over  the Next Hill (2004) next to The Handsome Family cover,  and the juxtaposition will yield a conspicuous disparity of  tone. While both images feature motifs that are to some extent  similar, the former seems rather sanguine compared to the latter's  unaccountably ominous vibe.

With its turbulent cover depicting waves  crashing against some sea cliffs, Singing  Bones (2003) at present concludes the band's predilection  for elemental imagery. The frenzied movement captured by this  illustration entails a drastic re-orientation away from the  stasis of the three preceding album covers. Nonetheless, the  configurational sense at work in the image is much the same  as before. Singing Bones gives  compositional precedence to the narrative moment in which a  wave breaks in an explosion of ocean spray, thus suggesting  a structural correspondence with Through the Trees while also reinforcing  the emphasis on vertical lineation so evident with regard to  that record and Twilight in particular.[viii] As indicated, the tempestuous image extends the  range of the group's concern with elementary forces by adding water to earth  and air. But the kind of referential slide that occurs between image and  title in In the Air and between  the title of Through the Woods and  the cover of Twilight is even more  pronounced in Singing Bones. Two of the album's songs  are named "If the World Should End in Fire" and "If the World Should End  in Ice," denoting two phenomena or states of nature that strangely contrast  with the cover's delineation of the raging waves. The title of the record, furthermore, invokes no less of a discrepancy in its dialectical collapse  of two largely opposing forms of matter, epitomized, respectively, by the  surf and the brittle bones.

 In what ways, then, do these album sketches  promise a gateway into the uncanny cartographies of The Handsome  Family? First of all, these covers are all manifestly about  nature, and not only that; there is also, in some of the titles,  a suggestion of a powerful immersion in it. The prepositions  in Through the Trees and In  the Air imply a resolute movement into nature that, presumably,  may be construed both literally and figuratively. In both these  images, nature appears hospitable and conciliatory, though  maybe deceptively so. Conversely, in Twilight nature is mainly intimidating and unapproachable, the dark  array of trees arranged as if to protect the primeval integrity  of the woods from any human trespassers. The concept of twilight  both underscores the existence of such a fearful boundary and  portends a tentative passage between different realms of being  parallel to that suggested by the preposition in Through the Trees. Singing Bones, finally, portrays nature as a violent, untamed force  that is not only ambiguous and daunting, as in Twilight, but has turned downright antagonistic, encroaching upon  the world beyond it. In the image of Singing  Bones, nature itself has become the trespasser.

The visual consistency of The Handsome  Family's four most recent albums is only matched by the notable  thematic and stylistic unity of Rennie Sparks's lyrics, which,  it should be pointed out, are not so much lyrics in the ordinary  sense as narrative poems or even short short stories.[ix] While most of these narratives converge on the subject  of nature, they also comprise various topical clusters. There are the murder ballads ("Up Falling Rock Hill," "My  Beautiful Bride," and "Down in the Valley of Hollow Logs" to name a few);  the songs about animals (like "3-Legged  Dog," "Don't be Scared," "In the Air," "Passenger Pigeons," and "White Dog");  the songs specifically about the natural world, often in conjunction with images of entrapment (for  example "I Fell," "Stalled," "Where the Birch Trees Lean," "Bury Me here," and "There  is a Sound"); the shopping mall songs  ("Peace in the Valley Once Again" and "24-Hour Store"); and, finally, songs  about different forms of transcending  the physical world ("Weightless Again," "The Sad Milkman," "Birds You  Cannot See," and "Gravity"). It is to the latter categories in particular  that I want to turn in the following. 

 For The Handsome Family, the surface  of the external world is malleable, and the texture of fathomable  existence may be easily perforated. Singing  Bones, for instance, is according to Rennie Sparks "designed  to rip holes in the veil between this world and the next" (Handsome  Family, 2005). She has also explained that a chance encounter with a blind girl in a shopping mall parking lot became the  inspiration for the whole album. Unperturbed and at ease within  her own blindness, the girl, Sparks said, revealed a "weird  form of fearlessness" (Gr¿nstad, 2004). Like a Walgreen Tiresias  the girl seemed to possess a kind of intuition or insight that  only the blind have access to. A source of contemplation as  well as aesthetic creation, the encounter must only have confirmed  Sparks's somewhat counter-empirical belief that our bodily  senses can perceive no more than about twenty per cent of the  multifarious phenomena that exist in our immediate ecology: "I  just want to make people consider," she reasons, "that life  may be more mysterious than we are aware, that our senses are  limited" (Hughes, 2004). "[W]e have a thousand preternatural things every day before our eyes" - this is not Sparks, but  Cotton Mather, who in 1692 was asked by judges to record his  impressions of the case against those accused of witchcraft  in Salem, Massachusetts (Mather, 2003: 393). Mather, who remained  unconvinced by the evidence collected, published his examination  the following year as The  Wonders of the Invisible World.

 This work does in fact figure prominently  in the intertexual tapestry that adds an aspect of historical  three-dimensionality to the kind of narratives told by the  band. Not only has Rennie Sparks acknowledged her keen interest  in Puritan literature, that of Mather and William Bradford  in particular, but Mather's conflation of the imperceptible  and the invisible with the wilderness, madness, and evil generates  a forceful cultural syndrome whose influence can be traced  through much of American history. As Richard Slotkin has shown  in his monolithic work on American mythology, the Puritan settlers' response  to and negotiations with the wilderness became the matrix for  the formation of the cultural consciousness of the colonies  and later the nation.[x] Projecting their own neurosis onto the wilderness,  nature - in short  - came to represent everything that the colonists feared. This perception of the wilderness in terms of its impenetrable, overwhelmingly malevolent alterity is something that Sparks continuously addresses in her narratives, but, unlike the Puritans,  she infuses her stories with an ambivalence which assumes that solace and  sin may co-exist in nature. While the song "Whitehaven" (from Singing Bones) - directly inspired by  Bradford[xi] - evidently recapitulates the archetypal scenario  in which the narrator is being seduced and lured away by nocturnal feminine  energies, "Stalled" (from Through the  Trees) offers a much more unresolved situation where it is difficult  to tell whether the speaker is paralyzed by, or may be simply content with,  being devoured by the wilderness:


What a hideous forest
Surrounded Whitehaven
Twisted black mountains
Wolves howled in madness
Never I ventured beyond the stone towers
As dusk spread her black wings
At the edge of the dark, wild wood
But one windy evening gathering timbers
Under white elm trees in shadows I saw her
The darkest of beauties
With her basket of cherries
The wind at her black skirts
Like the hands of the wild, dark wood
She turned in her terror
A madness possessed us
In shadows she pulled me


Falling snow spun above the road winding
 through the dark woods where my pickup stalled.
  Falling snow hissing through the air, painting my  windows
white till the trees disappeared. Even though I started  to
feel cold and I was far from town, I just sat there  in
the dark.

  Ensnared by nature's volatility, the protagonist  conjures a palpable sense of resignation, even acquiescence,  at the prospect of being snowbound in the woods. This eerie  yearning to become one with nature is conceivably the origin  of what I would refer to as the topographical uncanny in Sparks's poetics; that is, the uncanny  does not arise so much from the space of nature itself as from  the emotional complexities of the narrator's response to it.  In "I Fell," also from Through the Trees, the desire for a communion with nature, however violent, is even more urgent: "Walking  under those swaying trees, branches bowed with ice, I wanted  one to fall on me, to pin me in the snow." And, three cuts  later on the same record, the first-person narrator of "Bury  Me Here" wants to be submerged "with the spiders and fish" at  the end of a murky road where "black bears crawl to sleep,  tree sap slowly seeps and the sunrise never comes." Sometimes  nature intervenes more directly, as in the aforementioned "Lie  Down" from the In the Air album, where the narrative point of view oscillates between  an external narrator and the sea itself:

Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore with  a
 styrofoam box and two broken oars. He'd been digging  for
 clams in the muddy swamp weeds when he heard the  salt water
 whisper to him, 'Lie down, lie down in the dark rolling  sea.
 When you get to the bottom we'll kiss you to sleep.'
 Michael threw his glasses in the cold  green water.

Elsewhere, as in "Don't be scared" (also from In the Air), nature is imbued with a more  uplifting element, featuring a gathering flock of swallows - harbingers  of hope - that "fall in a wave and tap" on the protagonist's window "with their beaks." For Sparks, the wilderness and its  agents seem invariably to be capricious, the motive of her  characters wholly indecipherable.

 The allusions to Puritan literature aside,  the prevailing literary context for Sparks's fiction may be  located in the partial affinities with the Transcendentalist  rhetoric which several of the band's songs forcibly animate.  Rennie Sparks considers herself a Romantic writer in the 19th century  American tradition - always significantly informed by a certain perceptual sensitivity and intuition - and though she half-jokingly  claims that her muse inheres less in the pan in pantheism than  in the pan in panic (Gr¿nstad, 2004), there are recurring intimations  of the supernatural, oneiric, and ethereal in her work.[xii] One of the key songs in which the theme of invisibility  merges with the metaphysics of the wilderness and with a more affirmative  vision of nature is "Birds You Cannot See" (from Twilight). Here, there is no dark forest  beckoning the narrators to go with the chilling apparitions of the woods,  no conspiratorial swamp weeds talking the protagonist into suicide. Instead,  nature's messengers are not only friendly but even philanthropic in their  relationship to people:
There are birds in the darkness who douse electrical  fires
flaring up in nursing homes and the bedrooms of blind  men.
Birds you cannot see. There are birds in the darkness  who
nest in wooden crutches, eye patches, and bandages,  broken

spinal columns, and pots of withered plants. Birds  you cannot
see filling every tree, falling out of closets and  perched on the
hands of dying men. There are birds in the darkness  who lead
lost dogs off highways, steer boats past icebergs,  save children
stuck in wells.

The Handsome Family oeuvre is full of references to animals, birds and dogs in particular,  and they are probably meant to embody a diversity of traits  and features that are frequently incongruous. The birds in "Passenger Pigeons" (from Twilight)  become a poignant figure of sadness and loss,[xiii] whereas the crows in "Poor, Poor Lenore" (from In the Air) signify both destruction and  melancholy as they fly Lenore "to the top of a dead tree where the heartbroken  go." Similarly, the four dogs that run past the first person narrator in  the infinitely enigmatic and surreal "In the Air" and the dog that "sat in  the branches with his glowing yellow eyes" in "White Dog" (off of Twilight) represent creatures that are  terrifying not because they are threatening but because they exhibit an undecidable  aura that may turn friendly or hostile depending on the mood or the circumstances.

         As  the speaker in "White Dog" falls eternally down through the nightmarish branches of white trees, he implores the eponymous  canine to show him "the door across the lake of fire to the  silver shore." Transcendence may be more unobtainable than  ever in a post-numinous world, but Sparks's neo-romantic imagination  is anything but dispirited in its desire to "penetrate into  that region where the air is music," to cite the enraptured  Emerson of "The Poet" (Emerson, 2003: 1179). In a body of work  not exactly unacquainted with the subject of murder, tragedy,  suicide, insanity, loneliness, and the ongoing battle with  nothingness, one can hardly fault the characters for their  longing for redemption and release from the constraints of  the physical world. This is no more eloquently stated than  in "Weightless Again," the seminal first track (which they nearly left off the record) on the band's breakthrough album Through the Trees and perhaps the defining  moment thus far in their career:

We  stopped for coffee in the Redwood forest. Giant dripping
 leaves.  Spoons of powdered cream. I wanted to kiss you, but wasn't
sure  how. Like those indians lost in the rainforest, forced to drag
burning  wood wherever they went. They had all forgotten how to
start  a fire. This is why people OD on pills and jump from the Golden
Gate  Bridge. Anything to fell weightless again. Those poor, lost indians -
when  the white man found them, most died of TB; the rest
went  insane. In our motel room you're drinking Slice and gin,
reading Moby  Dick on the other bed. Remember the first time
we slept together? You said it felt like when you  learned to float.

At once relentless and gentle, sad and hopeful, the  pace of this lush elegy is almost unbearably insistent, like  a deranged, slow-motion locomotive wrapped in cotton traversing  cosmic prairies. For some reason that may be attributable to  the references to the "dripping leaves" and the rainforest, "Weightless  Again" always makes me think of humidity or dampness, connotations  that confer a tactile dimension upon the song. But what gives the performance its inimitable, crucial quality is the absurdly  modulated contrast between the conceptual focus of the lyrics  and the singer's  emburdened phrasing of those same words.  Intoned by Brett Sparks as if he had a mountain of lead in  his voice, the lyrics are enunciated in such a way as to counterpose  the topic of weightlessness central to the story. Even here - in  a song about how, standing before the abyss of disenchantment, people turn to narcotics and sex to overcome their depressions - does nature play a salient part. To be alienated from it appears  to be one source of man's unhappiness, though the escape into  buoyancy that an immersion in nature may secure is again accompanied  by potential risks. When Sparks gets to the word "forest" in  the opening line "[w]e stopped for coffee in the Redwood forest" his  voice descends even more, and in an instant it is made abundantly  clear that this Redwood forest is not the same as the one Woody  Guthrie extols in "This Land is Your Land." There may be malice  in The Handsome Family's neo-Emersonian wonderland, but that  is, perhaps, the price of weightlessness.

        It  could be argued that "Weightless Again" nicely crystallizes  the principal impulsion of The Handsome Family project - the  need to discard the limitations of the material world in order  to become part of the wonders of invisible continents. In this,  their work shows a profound continuity with 19th Century  Transcendentalism, only for this couple, the movement toward  the great beyond is weirdly graphic. Structured as an intricate interplay of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the lyrics  at least from Through  the Trees and onward are frequently defined by acts of  either levitation or sinking/falling. In addition to "Weightless  Again," the songs "The Giant of Illinois" (Through  the Trees), "In the Air," "The Sad Milkman," "Poor, Poor  Lenore" (In the Air), and "Gravity" (Twilight)  all contain attempts to do away with gravity. Movements in  the opposite direction are configured in "Amelia Earhart vs.  the Dancing Bear" (Milk and Scissors), "Stalled" (which begins,  revealingly, with the phrase "falling snow"), "Where the Birch  Trees Lean," "Down in the Ground," "I Fell," "Bury Me Here" (Through the Trees), the Hopperesque "The Snow White Diner" (Twilight), "The Forgotten Lake," and "The  Bottomless Hole" (Singing  Bones). It is in songs like these that what one may choose  to call the vertical iconography of the album covers finds  its literary counterpart.[xiv] The spiritual craving for transcendence is thus  de-sublimated into a purely formal choreography consisting of inverse movements  of rising up and falling down.

        Ultimately,  the rejection of the horizontal ambit of worldly affairs should  be seen as not just psychological but also political. The topographical  uncanny is the product of the artistic imagination's endeavours  to preserve and promote those aspects of life endangered by the ubiquitous pressures of neo-liberalism and the globalized  marketplace: mystery, beauty, spirituality, and rapture. Fitting  it is, therefore, that The Handsome Family is able to return  that most endemic and contemporary of American wastelands - the  mall - back to their beloved though certainly unpredictable  wilderness. According to Rennie Sparks's theory, the immense  American malls now fulfill the same function as did the rugged outback in the frontier days. Hunters have become shoppers. "The  sheer vastness of our warehouse stores is so strange," Sparks  ponders: "They are always windowless, as if designed to make  you forget there's another world outside" (Hughes, 2004). And  like Emerson's speaker in "Each and All," who comes to understand  that the luster of objects found in nature is lost once the  thing is brought home, the modern-day hunters always realize  in the end that - in the words of Sparks - "the bright shiny  things they buy will never be bright and shiny once the plastic  wrap comes off" (Hughes, 2004). [xv] In lyrics such as "Peace in the Valley Once Again"  (from Twilight)  and "24-Hour Store" (from Singing Bones),  however, nature itself invades the malls. While Ginsberg's 1950s supermarket  pulsates with consumers amid "the brilliant stacks of cans" (Ginsberg, 2003:  2873) - "Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!"  (2872) - the vision of the mall Sparks invents is markedly different:

When they closed the last shopping mall crickets  sang

  in crumbling walls. Termites ate through the doors.  Rabbits
hopped along the floors. The empty shelves swarmed  with
bees. Cash machines sprouted weeds. Lizards crawled
the parking lot. Swallows flew the empty shops. And  there
was peace in the valley once again. Plants grew up  the
mannequins painting them with leafy skin. Their plastic  eyes
fell to the floor and were carried off by wild boars.  All the

mirrors cracked in half when wild horses galloped  past and
mourning doves built their nests on the escalator  steps. And there
was peace in the valley once again.

Animals and plants have taken over the mall, whereas  in "24-Hour Store" the only people left in the Wal-Mart are  ghosts. In this spectral suburbia "the sleepless and lost/Push  their squeaking carts/Down the rows of clothes/And see nothing  at all," a disturbingly accurate metaphor of the insomnia-inducing,  zombifying effects of consumerism.[xvi] If, as The Handsome Family suggests, Walgreen's  has become the new wilderness of the American collective unconscious, new  wonders of the invisible world are in urgent demand. We need anything to  keep us weightless again.







Emerson, Ralph  Waldo. (1934) "Each and All." [1834]. American  Poetry and Prose. Ed. Norman Foerster. Boston: Houghton  Mifflin. 504-505.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (2003) "The Poet." [1844]. The Norton Anthology of American  Literature, Vol. B. 6th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton. 1177-1191.

Gilmore, Tom. (2003) "Songs to Soothe a Dark Heart:" An  Interview with The Handsome Family. Earlash. Available from
http://www.earlash.com/ft.php?featid=7 [Accessed 29th April 2004].

Ginsberg, Allen. (2003) "A Supermarket in California." The  Norton Anthology of American  Literature, Vol. E.  6th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton. 2872-2873.

Grønstad, Asbjørn. Interview with The Handsome Family.  Bergen, 2 May 2004.

Handsome Family. (2005) The Handsome Family Website.  Available from

 http://www.handsomefamily.com/Nbio.html [Accessed 01. February 2005].

Hughes, Rob. (2004) Interview with The Handsome Family. Uncut.  65. Available from http://uncut.co.uk/features/65 [Accessed  19th April  2004].

Laurence, Alexander. (2004) Interview with The Handsome  Family. Free Williamsburg. 47. Available from http://www.freewilliamsburg.com/february2004/handsome-family.html

[Accessed 29th April 2004].

Lunch, Lydia. (2002) Interview with Rennie Sparks. Sex and Guts Magazine.

 Available from


[Accessed 29th April 2004).

Marcus, Greil. (2002) "American Folk." Granta. 76 (2002). Available from

 http://www.granta.com/authors/1204 [Accessed 29th April 2004].

Marcus, Greil. (1997) The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York: Picador.

Mather, Cotton. (2003) The Wonders of the Invisible World. [1693]. The Norton Anthology  of American Literature, Vol. A. 6th Ed. New York:  W.W. Norton. 392-397.

McLeod, Kembrew. (2000) Rev. of In the Air. Rolling Stone. 838. 133.

Slotkin, Richard. (1973) Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American  Frontier 1600-1860.  Norman: U of Oklahoma P.

Sparks, Rennie. (2004) "Pretty Polly." The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty  in the American Ballad.  Eds. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. New York: W.W. Norton.  35-49.

Sparks, Rennie.  (2005) "Cover Art." E-mail to the author. 10 Feb. 2005. 


[i] Brett Sparks  concocts what can only be a euphemism for the eclectic moods  of his band.  Uncut, No. 54, November 2001, p. 100.
 [ii] This  is a line from the song "Gravity" from the album Twilight (Carrot  Top, 2001).
[iii]  See F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman,  London: Oxford UP, 1941. This cornucopia of new American folk music  includes but is definitively not limited to artists like Sixteen Horsepower,  Wilco, The Willard Grant Conspiracy, The Black Heart Procession, Calexico,  Low, Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co., Will Oldham, Grant Lee Phillips,  Mark Lanegan, Mark Kozelek, Pinetop Seven, Sparklehorse, Early Day Miners, Jim White, Johnny Dowd, Okkervil River, Joe Henry and Lambchop.
[iv]  Six  years after it was first released, Through  the Trees was canonized as one of the ten essential Americana albums  by the readers of the highly respected music magazine Mojo.  See issue 129 (2004), 131.
 [v]  The  prevalence of murder ballads in The Handsome Family songbook  obviously links the band's output to releases such as The Auteurs' After  Murder Park (Hut, 1996), Nick Cave's Murder Ballads (Mute/reprise, 1996), and Kristin Hersh's Murder, Misery and then Goodnight (4AD, 1998). But the duo displays  a fairly wide-ranging taste, and while Brett Sparks has told  interviewers that the Singing  Bones record  was particularly inspired by Dylan's Love  and Theft (Columbia, 2001) and Lucinda Williams's Essence (Lost Highway, 2001), there are traces of many different  artists from an earlier generation of Americana in their work:  Hank Williams (incidentally, the song "My Sister's Tiny Hands"  from Through the Trees includes the Williamesque phrase "set the woods  to burning," which is almost the title of the song that The  Walkabouts quoted in the title of their 1994 album Setting  the Woods on Fire); Buck Owens; Tom Waits ("The Woman Downstairs,"  from Through the Trees); The Band (especially  "Drunk by Noon," from Milk  and Scissors);  Leonard Cohen; Neil Young; Alistair Roberts; and even The Dream  Syndicate ("3-Legged Dog", off of Milk and Scissors). Among Sparks's literary precursors one would not  be surprised to find the likes of Emily Dickinson and Flannery  O'Connor.
[vi]  For  one recent visualization of this predominantly malicious country,  I recommend Andrew Douglas's documentary Searching  For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003), featuring artists like Johnny Dowd,  Jim White, and The Handsome Family themselves.
[vii]  Numerous are the examples of bands within the  amorphous Americana genre that have attracted a dedicated following  and garnered considerable critical acclaim overseas while remaining  virtually unknown - and in some cases even undistributed -  in the Unites States. Consider for instance acts such as The Walkabouts,  Giant Sand,  Sixteen Horsepower, Will Oldham, and The Willard Grant Conspiracy,  to name but a few.
[viii]  I  owe this observation in part to Brett Sparks, who during our  interview pointed out that the motif of verticality (which I introduced  in relation  to the lyrics and which I shall return to shortly) appears  in one form or the other on several of the band's record covers.
[ix]  Rennie  has an MA in creative writing and is also the author of the short story  collection Evil (2001). She is currently at work  on a novel about the invisible world.
[x]  Consult  in particular the first volume of Slotkin's trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier  1600-1860.
 [xi]  The  song's opening line - "What a hideous forest" - is derived  from a passage in chapter nine of

William  Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation  1620-1647, "what could they see but a hideous and desolatewilderness,  full of wild beasts and wild men" (Bradford, 1963: 62). I  owe this reference to Rennie Sparks  herself, who in an e-mail communication to the author considers that "people  of Bradford's time [may have]  used the word "hideous" a lot more loosely than we do now.  Sort of like "depraved" or "wretched" which seem  very strong words now, but might have not been so strong then. Still,  he clearly wanted to paint a dark picture of the early days in America (Sparks, 2005)
[xii]  The  strong spiritual undertow in their music could be seen as forming a  part of an emerging trend in contemporary American folk music. The work  of David Eugene Edwards and Low are two other prominent examples, though  these artists, unlike The Handsome Family, subsume the spiritual within  an overtly religious context.
[xiii]  Rennie  Sparks returns to the subject of passenger pigeons in her essay  on "Pretty Polly" in The Rose and the Briar. By the turn of  the last century, she writes, the birds had been completely exterminated  by reckless hunters (Sparks, 2004: 45).
[xiv]Brett Sparks has suggested  that the vertical geometrics of the later album covers may be taken  to symbolize an escape from the  linear and the chronological and to the  circular and infinite. (Grønstad, 2004).
[xv]  See  for instance the following section in Emerson's poem:

The delicate shells lay  on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest  wave
Fresh pearls to their  enamel gave,
And the bellowing of the  savage sea
Greeted their safe escape  to me.
I wiped away the weeds  and foam,
I fetched my sea-born  treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly,  noisome things
Had left their beauty  on the shore
With the sun and the sand  and the wild up-
roar. (Emerson, 1934:  505)

[xvi] A  similar correlation of shopping and sleeplessness can be found  in David Fincher's Fight Club (1999).

Asbjørn  Grønstad

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