The first time I saw the Handsome Family play Sheffield it was in the back room of a pub with broken chairs and a temperamental drum machine. In the intervening 20 or so years so much has changed but fundamental truths remain the same. Tonight City Hall is packed, Jason Toth is on percussion, and the furniture is fully functioning, but the soul of The Handsome Family remains the uniquely talented Sparks. Rennie is surely one of the finest, and most fascinating, contemporary lyricists in the world, and Bretts salubrious vocals bring them touchingly to life. Together they conjure a sublime enchantment.
The onstage banter ensures the gaps between songs are as entertaining as their music. Early on Rennie proclaims "we're not robots, we're the Handsome Family" but a band overflowing with so much heart and humanity could never be confused with automatons. Providing the theme tune to True Detective has brought richly deserved new audiences and popular acclaim. It shows, as Brett says, you should "always hold onto your back catalogue" but it is clear scaling up won't corrupt or significantly change their modus opeandi. There has been a gently evolution, rather than revolution, in The Handsome Family sound over the years. It's more confident, less ramshackle but still retains their skill at creating an intimate atmosphere.
It's great to hear Rennie sings more and her harmonies are beautiful, especially on the fan favourite "so much wine" and the new track "gold" (described disarmingly as "further from any road" by Brett at another gig). He displays his virtuosity in a couple of solos which enhance tracks like Owls but never outstay their welcome. Brett's dramatic Spanish translation of The Sad Milkman is a treat. When he stops singing the uncomfortably confessional "My Ghost" partway through the song it doesn't feel diva-ish, it merely underlines how true to their visions The Handsome Family are. Its hard to define authenticity when we are immersed in the spectacle but this music radiates truth and wonder. For example, new song Tiny Tina takes an everyday missed encounter with the worlds smallest horse and installs it with such pathos that the sadness touches all.
There is a curious timelessness to The Handsome Family; the spirit of weird old country pervades but songs like "Somewhere else to be" could only have been written now. They shine differently on repeated listening; the unrivalled beauty and despair in Weightless Again can still make me cry after all this time. It sounds especially gorgeous tonight, as does the closing Don't be Scared and the xylophone enhanced Milk and Scissors. These are songs we should learn at school, or sing at a shrine to deity not yet discovered. They offer comfort, guidance and illumination, distilling all that is beautiful, amazing and terrible about life and transforming it into parables with universal resonance. Alchemy indeed
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