Wow, That’s A Good Song: The Handsome Family, “Cathedrals”

I enjoy playing my favorite Handsome Family song for the unsuspecting. Or maybe on the unsuspecting.

Whenever I take control of anything with speakers, it’s a fair bet that at least something you hear will be twangy. “Cathedrals” is no exception, and if you’ve never heard the song before, odds are — and this is anecdotal, but I have a 100% success rate — once you figure out what’s going on in the song, you’ll make a really great face and ask, “What is that?” Because it twangs like it’s supposed to… but the lyrics are a little different.

The Cathedral in Cologne looks like a spaceship
Like the hand of God falling from the sky
A thousand stone-carved saints hang like icicles
But icicles don’t take a thousand years to die

And everyone who ever worked on this cathedral
Or even spent a moment walking by
Every one of us is swept away like breadcrumbs
What comfort does it bring, soaring towers left behind?

Yes, that’s Jeff Tweedy singing backup — Through The Trees was recorded prior to Brett and Rennie Sparks’s move from Chicago to Albuquerque. I found the Handsome Family through Jeff Tweedy’s cover of “So Much Wine”, and was moved to explore their back catalog by Andrew Bird’s covers of “Tin Foil”, “Don’t Be Scared”, and “The Giant of Illinois”.

What I like best about the Handsome Family is their tendency towards image-filled stories of the grotesque that all have weird cultural anchors courtesy of their twang. It’s jarring in a way that makes me think about what they’re doing and pay more attention. I like it when music does that. It’s also fun to sing along with in the car, especially if your passenger who’s just made the face is still trying to come to grips with what’s on the speakers.

What makes “Cathedrals” specifically my favorite, though — that comes in the juxtaposition of the second half of the song with the first. At home one day I was working in the kitchen with this song on. My father called from the living room, “What’s Wisconsin got to do with it?”

The fiberglass castle in Wisconsin at the start of the third verse is the answer to the question posed at the end of the second verse. I think I told him something like that, anyway.

“Cathedrals” is where the Handsome Family messes around with form the most, to my ear, and I like their answer to that question. And that’s why it’s my favorite.

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