The Handsome Family – Last Days of Wonder (2006)
“There was mystery singing from everything,” says Brett Sparks on “White Lights”. It’s a tender love song from the Handsome Family’s seventh studio album, Last Days of Wonder, that’s set, characteristically enough, within a graveyard beside a stripmall– a theme and place that should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the Handsome Family and their fractured, gothic Americana. The husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks have always sought to wrest as much mystery and romance as possible from their seemingly mundane modern surroundings, crafting an impressive, finely attuned catalog of urban ghost stories, death ballads, and fatalistic country narratives.
Steeped in Appalachian folk tradition, the Handsome Family’s songs are forever shadowed by nature’s hidden uncontrollable forces. Perhaps it’s this deep-seated sense of impending doom that has lately discouraged the duo from making any far-reaching updates to their musical attack. Last Days of Wonder is the Handsome Family’s first album since 2003’s Singing Bones, and like the rest of their work its success depends entirely upon two assets: Rennie’s keenly observed, fantasist lyrics and Brett’s rich, oaken baritone. With a formula the duo settled upon somewhere around 1998’s Through the Trees, Brett supplies nearly all of the music as well, digitally recording layers of guitar, banjo, autoharp, and electronic percussion. But while Last Days of Wonder does contain some typically absorbing performances, one can’t help but feel that they’ve begun to repeat themselves, sounding at times like some talkative old-timer who can’t always recall which of his crazy stories he’s already told.