On a cursory listen, Twilight sounds like a typical Handsome Family album that is, if "typical" may be employed to describe a husband-and-wife duo who sing sad, funny songs about mortality, beauty and urban decay while swaying to the tune of an autoharp accompanied by a plodding drum machine. This is, after all, Rennie and Brett Sparks, who've made a career of adapting the murder-ballad tradition to tell tales of off-season theme parks, bipolar wards and delusional poodles with cancer.
But a bit of the back story puts Twilight in context, and reveals deeper significance. Recorded in the couple's Chicago apartment and completed last summer, just before they packed up and left the town they'd long made their home and muse, the Handsomes' fifth disc serves as a bittersweet goodbye. Throughout these 13 tracks, the pair now living in Albuquerque searches for tranquility in a cityscape where parking lots pass for wide-open spaces, streetlights stand in for stars, and wind-whipped plastic bags mimic in miniature the roar of the surf.
Twilight lacks the guest cameos that fueled other Handsome Family discs (notably violinist Andrew Bird on In the Air and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on Through the Trees), but Brett Sparks' skills as a musician and singer continue to expand here, as does his sense of adventure with the arrangements. Both "Snow White Diner" and "There Is a Sound" feature piano prominently, and the latter is even more remarkable for Brett's vocal turn, which could only be described as a "croon." A theremin whistles in the background of "Gravity," a bassoon-like synth sound carries the melody of "No One Fell Asleep Alone," and in "I Know You Are There," Brett even reaches with mixed success for a falsetto.
Rennie Sparks pens the pair's lyrics, which have always depicted a starker Chicago than Billy Corgan's shining city by the lake or Liz Phair's glowing Guyville grid ("The trains roared by under smoke-gray skies/ Lake Michigan rose and fell like a bird/ And when the wind screamed up Ashland Avenue/ The corner bars were full by noon," Brett sang in "The Woman Downstairs," from 1997's Through the Trees). On Twilight, Rennie's view of the city and by extension, 21st Century America recalls Grandaddy, whose Sophtware Slump lamented the lack of humanizing connection in a society of technophiles, found a friend in the form of a hard-drinking robot, and fantasized about a future day when natural order is restored to a wasteland of short-circuited gadgetry. Similarly, Twilight rallies to the margins its few empathetic human figures are blind men and deaf women, psychotics and drunks and the happy ending ("Peace in the Valley Once Again") arrives only when "the last shopping mall" is reclaimed by termites, rabbits, and lizards.
Still, the album is no endless bummer. You'll find heroes aplenty if you don't mind deifying talking dogs and a pool of black humor, particularly in "So Long," a hilarious tribute to dead pets, including Snickers, a "dog who ate Christmas tinsel," "Mr. Whiskers, who jumped out of a window," and of course, "the goldfish who ate each other's tails."