Sickness and Light

“I’m not Christian, but the thought of people imagining heaven and this blissful afterlife is such a beautiful idea for me,” explains Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family. “Life may be shit, but the ability that humans have to imagine this ideal place is good enough.” Escaping corporeal reality is a major theme on the local duo’s new full-length, In the Air (Carrot Top), which arrives in stores this Tuesday. The album is a follow-up–and not just chronologically–to their 1998 collection, Through the Trees, which was heavy on death and other earthly woes. “It’s just a simple thing of ‘look up and you’ll feel better,'” says Rennie.

Rennie, who writes the lyrics, and her husband of 12 years, Brett Sparks, who writes the music and does most of the singing, weren’t feeling so good when they wrote Through the Trees. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to get these songs finished and then I’m going to blow my brains out,'” Rennie says. In the midst of recording their previous album, Milk and Scissors, Brett had gone “totally cuckoo”–though they didn’t know it at the time, he was bipolar, and he’d hit a serious low. “I was doing very bad things,” he says. “I was totally delusional, eating cat food and drinking champagne, living in my car in the Loop and punching security guards.” Rennie had him committed to Chicago Read Mental Health Center in Portage Park, where he stayed for three weeks. Not long after his release, she became severely depressed. “He had his breakdown and then I had mine,” she says. Both are now on medication–antidepressants for her, lithium for him.

Parts of Milk and Scissors and all of Through the Trees were radically different from the band’s 1995 debut, Odessa, which set Rennie’s witty non sequiturs to galloping parodies of country music or other noisy backdrops. “I didn’t really think of music as something you could be serious about as an adult,” says Rennie, who’s 34. “I was a little punk rocker for a long time and it was this fun, escapist, exciting music–the exuberance of youth–but as I got older it became sort of boring. All I could think of was some kind of ironic take on music, and everything was about making fun of stuff.”

“I’ve always been a writer, but I never paid much attention to lyrics because it seemed like a stupid thing to do,” she says. “But then I discovered people who were good, like Vic Chesnutt, and we started becoming serious. Which horrified our drummer [Mike Werner], and he hightailed it out of here.” Werner, who still plays with the decidedly unserious Polkaholics, was replaced by a drum machine, and the Handsome Family’s sound grew significantly darker and more sparse, with banjo, Autoharp, fiddle, Dobro, and piano figuring prominently alongside Brett’s acoustic strumming. And Rennie’s lyrics mingled desire, love, desperation, and death in a dense, agonizingly elegant rush.

Brett says he’s often asked if his illness fueled the brilliance of Through the Trees. “That is the biggest bunch of bullshit ideology in the world,” he marvels. “When you’re so delusional and distracted that you can’t put your pants on, how are you going to write a song?” And in fact, while Rennie’s lyrics do occasionally delve into the experience of insanity–on “My Ghost,” from Through the Trees, Brett sings, “Here in the bipolar ward if you shower you get a gold star, but I’m not going far till the Haldol kicks in / Until then, until then / I’m strapped to this fucking twin bed”–her clarity and concision and Brett’s meticulous craft in reimagining folk and country conventions are obviously the products of a rigorous intellectual process.

Superficially, In the Air may seem like more of the same–topics include heavy drinking (“So Much Wine”), fratricide (“Up Falling Rock Hill”), and bride-icide (“My Beautiful Bride”). But the overall tone is more peaceful: madness doesn’t rear its head, and many of the characters are captured just after the fall, dusting themselves off and looking heavenward for another shot. And though as a whole it’s not as immediately mesmerizing as Through the Trees, it features Brett’s singing at its best yet, including some nifty falsetto harmony on “So Much Wine.”

As on Through the Trees, the tunes are full of references to folk narratives and melodies. “I admit to total appropriation and theft,” says Brett. “Some of the melodies are literally lifted from folk songs, but doing that is a tradition in itself.” Rennie adds, “These little stories have been revised and passed on for a thousand years. Somehow they speak to people from different countries and different times. I used to listen to Burl Ives all the time as a kid, and a lot of those songs are frightening, scary songs about animals and bad things happening in the woods sung in this really lighthearted manner. I think in the back of my mind I always associated children’s folk songs with terror.”

“Our biggest stumbling block in the U.S. is that people think we’re morbid,” says Brett. In Europe and the UK–where they’ve toured half a dozen times since the release of Through the Trees and make enough money to excuse them from day jobs–they don’t face this problem. “In Ireland everybody thinks it’s just a slice of life.”

The couple never replaced Werner, and recorded the new album entirely on a Macintosh G3 in their Wicker Park living room, amid Rennie’s collections of canned dog food and taxidermy. Jon Langford has jokingly dubbed their music “countronica,” but the technology is not a gimmick–in fact, it’s nearly invisible, and by no means detracts from the depth or “realness” of the music. Brett says they didn’t plan on using the drum machine for more than six months, but grew to like it especially in concert. “The absence of a personality is what I really like about it,” says Rennie. “It’s so cold and empty. A drummer is too alive, and that’s too much for me.”

The Handsome Family celebrates the release of In the Air on Friday at Schubas, and in the next month or so Rennie plans to publish a book of short stories, Evil, through her own Black Hole Press.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.