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It was existential music, conveyed via Brett’s soothing, cautioning baritone and traditional old-timey folk music forms that I had never completely appreciated before.

I went out and finally bought the Harry Smith folk anthology.

And the new songs were still funny and dark, but with a new depth that clung to me for days.

For example, there was “Weightless Again,” off their then-new third album It was as spooky as it was true — as were songs about taking revenge on your sister’s death by snakebite by setting fire to the woods where it took place (“My Sister’s Tiny Hands”) and the impermanence of human achievement (“Cathedrals”) and just about every other song on the record, which remains an absolute classic.

The drummer had disappeared and been replaced by a minidisc player acting as drum machine, going AWOL somewhere around the time that Brett was hospitalized for bipolar disorder, an experience that he wrote a great song about here and wrote an ever better essay about here.

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It was the kind of effect the Handsomes could have on you.

A bottomless hole in one’s backyard is both irresistable adventure and deathly lure.

They sang dark, funny songs about giant ants and wanting a pony and inviting Jesus to your party to turn water into wine, and were generally charming and fun.

The next time I saw them was in the summer of 1998, again opening for the Mekons, and while they were still charming and fun (and Rennie’s stories had gotten even more bizarrely entertaining), they were also utterly changed.

In particular, as I mentioned briefly in my Freakwater entry, Rennie Sparks is an absolutely incredible writer, able to capture the horror and the beauty of both the natural world and the manmade world (which is really just another part of the natural world) and make it all of a piece.In Rennie’s world, the little Dutch boy takes no pleasure in being celebrated as a hero, for he knows that he’s only temporarily forestalled the coming flood.

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