We live in a fallen world, and Brett Sparks has devoted his life to documenting the sadness and disappointment that is our lot in life. Or at least his lot in life; when the Handsome Family, the musical project Sparks leads with his wife, Rennie Sparks, recorded an album of love songs (2009's Honey Moon), he still found ways to make the experience sound dour and slightly puzzling. The less joyous experiences that dominate 2016's Unseen, the duo's 11th studio album, hardly give Sparks much cause for a happier tone. In short, the Handsome Family have once again presented us with a handful of sketches from life's gloomy side, but if Brett Sparks is no Mary Sunshine, he remains a uniquely talented songwriter, and Unseen finds he's working near the top of his game. Sparks is a splendid storyteller with a grand sense of the significant detail; you can almost feel the bullet in the gut of the luckless thief in "Gold," the heartburn from the greasy casino buffet in "The Silver Light," and the mingled skepticism and wonder as he peruses a circus sideshow in "Tiny Tina." Sparks even imagines a time when the recent past seemed like a golden age in "Back in My Day," declaring, "We had maps that unfolded back in my day/You could drink from the river, we had gods made of clay." Sparks' craggy voice has always been a good match for his songs, but his vocals are more agile here than on most of his previous work, and if Rennie comes in for harmonies less often these days, she makes her mark when she does. And the implacable rock & roll piano on "The Red Door," the parlor jazz guitars of "The Silver Light," and the gothic moods of "Gentlemen" show this group is capable of more than bummed-out vintage Americana. The Handsome Family have never been especially prolific, but they can be counted on to deliver something special when they do introduce a new album, and Unseen may not cheer you up, but it will compel and fascinate anyone with an appetite for great songwriting.
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