Two decades and nine studio albums into a career, most bands could be expected to run out of surprises. But the Handsome Family just keep on throwing curves and change-ups.
The duo’s latest release, “Wilderness” (Carrot Top), includes what at first glance appears to be a series of twisted takes on the animal kingdom. But nothing is ever quite that simple or obvious in the music of husband-and-wife songwriters Brett and Rennie Sparks. Fairly benign song titles – “Flies,” “Owls,” “Woodpecker” – are merely doorways into worlds shaped by dreams, folk tales, science fiction and the couple’s wicked imaginations.
“Glow Worm,” the album’s centerpiece, is unlike anything the Handsome Family has attempted before, a mix of progressive rock and Jules Verne. Rennie’s lyrics describe a journey to the center of the earth, the captain traveling “a boiling river through streams of mercury” toward his mad destiny. Brett casts the tale in epic colors, with a wordless baritone choir, strings and the kind of instrumental virtuosity you might expect to hear on a side-long Yes opus.
“There is a bass part that I would never put on a record, but I have this friend Ted Jurney who is the busiest bass player in the world and I told him, ‘Play as excessively as you can,” Brett says with a laugh. “For the kind of person who would get to the center of the earth and want to touch it, grab it – that demands a certain excess. But he’s also flawed, weak, like the narrative voice in (David Bowie’s) ‘Space Oddity.’ ”
“There may not be a return to this journey, but he’s delusional,” Rennie adds, referring to the song’s protagonist, not her husband.
The two have been collaborating on more than just music since the early ‘90s. They finish each other’s sentences in interviews and their on-stage banter would be fodder for an excellent comedy album. An accomplished writer, Rennie built the songs from a series of essays collected in a picture book, also entitled “Wilderness” – a mix of zoological and historical research, folklore and metaphor.
“Songs allow you to talk about the same subjects you’d write about in an essay in a different way,” she says. “It’s the language of dreams.”
Once she finishes the lyrics, Brett gets to work on the music in their home studio in Albuquerque, N.M. “Sometimes, the lyrics are so suggestive of what the music should be, the main job is to avoid the obvious,” he says. “With ‘Octopus,’ it had to be a George Formby slash Queen seaside rendezvous mixed in with a Beatles shuffle – it was just so irresistible you have to do it. I read the first line of ‘Owls’ and it made me think of a slow George Jones song, like the ‘Grand Tour.’ The way I think about things is not ‘A minor’ or ‘the key of C.’ I think about the container the lyrics are going to live in, what world the lyrics are going to inhabit, and what they’re asking for.”
Rennie gets her say after Brett puts the track together. “I have an idea in my head of how it should go,” she says, “but he comes back with something way better.”
“There is very little leakage between our two jobs,” Brett says. “I used to question her lyrics a lot, and lot of those times I was wrong. I don’t really mess with her – she knows what she’s doing.”
Subtle tweaks sometimes make a good song even better, though. “With ‘Octopus,’ I liked the idea, the way it was evocative of the English seaside,” Rennie says. “But I also wanted to hear the octopus, get a high-pitched noise in there. And Brett found me a noise that sounded like the octopus.”
“A theremin – gives it more of a nautical feel,” he says.
Of such give-and-take are great albums made, and “Wilderness” is one of the best in a career marked by remarkable consistency and evolving inventiveness.
“A concept album? I think of them all that way,” Rennie says. “All of the songs live in the same forest. They should be heard together. But the part of your brain that groups by themes is not the part that’s doing the writing. I didn’t think about the album opening with a song about (U.S. Army officer George) Custer (‘Flies’) and ending with a song about (American songwriter) Stephen Foster (‘Wildebeest’). Afterward, you realize they’re heroes with tragic flaws from a similar time period who meet untimely ends. They’re good bookends.”
Handsome Family: 6:30 p.m. July 22 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, free; cityofchicago.org.