All Songs Considered
10:03 am
Mon May 6, 2013

First Watch: The Handsome Family, 'Woodpecker'

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 12:24 pm

The Handsome Family, the wife and husband duo of Rennie Sparks (vocals, bass and banjo) and Brett Sparks (vocals, guitar and keyboards), love telling stories, and they've been doing it in song for 20 years. A new album, Wilderness, is out May 14, and "Woodpecker," a song from the album, tells a fascinating tale about Mary Sweeney, who, in the 1890's, was known as the Wisconsin Window Smasher. The song takes the image of a woodpecker, pecking on trees to find what's inside, the way Mary Sweeney would break windows in her frenzy to discover what was behind the glass.

She was a woodpecker
she couldn't help but see
all the things that hide
inside all the pretty trees

As Rennie Sparks tells us, "The gleam of glass whispers secrets that few can hear. Mary Sweeney was one of them. She was also a woodpecker."

On one level, the video for "Woodpecker," directed by Chris Hefner, creates a beautiful aura of objects behind glass. Mary Sweeney was "an otherwise quiet woman beset by an overpowering urge," he writes. But Hefner says he was inspired to think of the objects behind the glass in a different way when, while taking a break from the film shoot, he visited an exhibit of artifacts salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic. "An afternoon in a room filled with vitrines of plates, cups and personal items plucked from up to eight decades of silence, absolute darkness and over 6,000 psi of water pressure. The thread between Mary, the relics from the great wreck and The Handsome Family's wonderful music is that they show us, in no uncertain terms, that even the most unassuming of household items may be only a moment away from exploding with tremendous and sometimes terrible power. I find great beauty in this, and hope my movie might serve to offer a similar reflection."

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