Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Handsome Family - Through the Trees

The Handsome Family
Through the Trees

Released 1998 on Loose Records
Reviewed by welbourn TEKH, 21/04/2004ce

How many records make you want to fling open your windows and release a primal holler, venting your revulsion at the absurdities and injustices of the modern world? In the dislocated world of the Handsome Family, this primeval declaration would only be greeted by derision by the winos and junkies that inhabit the street below. For here, deep within this recording your worst nightmares and deepest fears are visited and publicly displayed.

Released in 1998, Through the Trees was the third album produced by Brett and Renee Sparks - The Handsome Family. Their first album Odessa (1996) was a messy, directionless affair and the follow up Milk and Scissors (1996) suffered from a rather ‘flat’ production, but propelled them in the ‘dark country’ path on which they would eventually develop on Through the Trees. An other-worldliness presides of this claustrophobic affair, a truck driver breaks down in a blizzard (‘Stalled’), but there is no cry for help, just an opportunity to view nature close-up from the safety and warmth of the cab. A duel consciousness is revealed that allows us city dwellers, to glimpse out into a world where we have limited control.

I first became of aware of this album, and The Handsome Family for that matter, from a ‘freebie’ disk that came courtesy of Uncut magazine back in 1998. The featured song - ‘Weightless Again’ is the opening track on Through the Trees and introduces us to a band who, although labeled as ‘new’ or ‘alt-country’, operate in a ‘country’ not frequented by any other that went before. The subject matter of the song draws on a deep human need to experience a weightlessness that takes us back to the 'gravity-free' environment of the womb. The lyric creates wonderful images as we journey through giant redwoods and experience Native Americans dragging their fires on sleighs behind them, for it is claimed: they have lost the art of ignition. Their burning burdens being the difference between life and death. They persevere, unaware of the cruel diseases that the white settlers will bring to their land, a curse that will eventually extinguish their fires.

The standout track on the album for me is ‘The Giant of Illinois’: it sends shivers down my spine and brings me to my knees. The pain of existence is encapsulated in the lyric, where a metaphorical fever brings mortality to your very door. The heavy, pondering chords deliver a ‘world-weariness’ that exacerbates the cruelty and brutality of youth. The greed and excesses of western culture are portrayed in the stoning to death of a swan by two nonchalant youths, but it is there own indifference to their deadly deed that is their greatest crime.

Throughout the album we are reminded that in the midst of life, the Grim Reaper is never far away (‘I Fell’), but even in death, new life is born. The rotting corpse is home to a million lifeforms - this really is The Handsome Family’s own death and resurrection show. The absurdity of a cop stealing a dead woman’s TV (‘The Woman Downstairs’) is metaphorical of nature’s resourcefulness, for here there is no wastage. A ‘comic’ tuba underlines the absurdity of the scene. In western eyes this act of looting is considered heartless and cruel, but in nature - a dog-eat-dog world – what use is a TV to a dead woman? Even in the city, the rules of nature apply and the wind blowing down the streets and avenues is a constant reminder of nature's baleful presence.

Through the Trees is strewn with ghosts. In ‘Cathedrals’ the stone-carved saints that adorn Cologne Cathedral are likened - by lyricist Renee Sparks - to icicles. Their permanence stands in stark contrasted to the transience and brittleness of the frozen water. Humbled by this architectural achievement, the magnificence is shattered by her tale of drunkenness in an empty bar, set beside a fibre-glass castle. There is a deep need here to destroy mankind's rose-coloured myth of beauty. Brett Sparks’ deep baritone voice - delivered here in an almost cabaret style - adds to the irony, as he mimics the MOR country singers of Randy Travis and Garth Brooks et al.

Renee Sparks’ attention to detail throughout this recording is astonishing and she reveals herself as the arch-poetess of the blue mountains and steaming forests. The songs exist as living entities, heartfelt, truthful and brutal to the core. Like Homer’s Siren’s we are lured by her words, there is no hiding place from our eventual fate. A great day out is spoilt by excessive drinking (‘Cathedrals’) and even her ghost (‘My Ghost’) is depicted; not as an elegant, graceful spectre, but as one who: “staggers and reels, runs up credit-card bills and clogs up the toilet with bottles and pills.”

For those of you who hold a deep hatred of country music, shed your prejudices for 45 minutes and check out Through the Trees. I liken this claustrophobic experience to a lost world after a heavy snowfall. Amidst the eerie silence, unfamiliar sounds are replaced by discerning noises and a transient stillness provides timeless beauty. But come the thaw, the melting snow once again reveals the familiarity of our grimy world.

Through the Trees reveals glimpses of a fairy-tale world of myth and metaphor set against the prevailing backdrop of reality. For many rock fans, Country Music has often been perceived as a ‘light-hearted’ genre, but after listening to this wonderful recording, I am sure that you will become a convert to The Handsome Family’s dark and tragic world.

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