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First Listen: The Handsome Family, 'Wilderness'

NPR icon by Stephen Thompson
Jason Creps

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For nine studio albums spanning more than two decades, The Handsome Family's Brett and Rennie Sparks have crafted a sort of glum Appalachian fatalism. With Brett singing his wife's evocative lyrics, the Albuquerque-based duo examines the underbelly of the human psyche — demons, depression, death — with a sound that spans many generations at once.

On Wilderness, out May 14, The Handsome Family returns with a concept album about wildlife — each song is named for some creature or other — with an emphasis on nature's capacity for destruction. In "Caterpillars," a woman is struck by lightning and struggles to escape the unkind vibrations that haunt her. "Woodpecker" tells the story of the "Wisconsin Window Smasher," Mary Sweeney, from the 1890s — then follows its tragic protagonist to the insane asylum. "The owls, they mock me / and have stolen my pills," Brett Sparks sings at one point in "Owls." Animals may burrow in and out of each of these songs, but they're merely helping humanity forge a pathway to madness.

Wilderness' deluxe edition includes a companion book full of Rennie Sparks' evocative artwork — her ants, eels and octopi occupy the CD art, too. But, beautiful as they are, her visual work is virtually redundant: The Handsome Family's greatest gift of all lies in its tremendous talent for painting vivid, sometimes terrifying pictures with every word.

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