Release Date: Sep 8, 2017
Record label: BMG Rights Management
One of the huge issues facing any artist as they approach their 50th anniversary in the business is, simply, how do you keep on keeping on? Sparks’ career is – as those who know know – truly fascinating. Some 25 albums, only two cover versions in their entire body of work. No solo projects, no fallout, members have waxed and waned around them, but Ron and Russell Mael remain Sparks and Sparks remain Ron and Russell Mael; singular, removed, inventive, a great gag worth repeating.
It’s been 45 years since sibling masterminds Ron and Russell Mael (piano and vocals, respectively) issued their eponymous debut album as Sparks (technically, a re-release of an album released under a different name, but let’s not split hairs). Since then, they’ve released roughly two dozen studio LPs, with a blend of cerebrally tongue-in-cheek lyrics, infectious melodies and robust yet peculiar arrangements that have cemented Sparks as one the most idiosyncratic and dependable American pop/rock acts of all time. Although many fans agree that the band’s mid-‘70s run was their peak, Sparks have never failed to meet, if not exceed, expectations, and that holds true for their latest offering, Hippopotamus.
After the brilliantly orchestrated concept-pop of Lil’ Beethoven (2002), and the assorted delights of Hello Young Lovers four years later, Sparks seemed to be treading water a little with 2008’s Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, a little over-reliant on the same tricks of repetition as …Beethoven, but with far less poise and wit. There hasn’t been a ‘proper’ Sparks album – a “pop album”, as Ron puts it – since, with Ron and Russell Mael’s focus pulled by filmic pursuits – the song-cycle The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and the early stages of a film musical project with Leos Carax – and the arch, angular Franz Ferdinand collaboration, FFS..
I n their 45-year career, Ron and Russell Mael have pulled off everything from Morrissey-favoured operatic glam rock to Giorgio Moroder-produced electronic disco (the wonderful The Number One Song in Heaven) to the FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand. The band.
Aside from a couple of times when they have aligned with popular taste – a couple of top 10 hits in the mid-70s, a brief flurry with Franz Ferdinand as the stuff-of-dreams supergroup FFS in 2015 – brothers Ron and Russell Mael have continued making clever baroque pop that’s unconcerned with musical trends, and of a consistent high quality. New album Hippopotamus is more of the same, but in the context of Sparks’ career that’s a delight rather than a disappointment..
Fewer and fewer living artists today can claim to be songwriting men-of-all-seasons like brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the creative force behind Sparks. With a career spanning 46 years and almost two dozen genre-bending studio albums, you'd have to turn to the likes of David Bowie to find a musical approach more chameleon-like. Their newest effort, Hippopotamus, beautifully extends what is arguably the third golden era for the band that began with 2002's Lil' Beethoven (their '70s glam rock material and '80s New Wave run being the first two).
Few bands will ever reach the half-century mark, and fewer still could manage that looking so blasé as Sparks. They watch time pass with wry distance, adopting musical fashions like visitors from a parallel dimension. The Brothers Mael got the first of their occasional hits during the 1970s glam era, but their affect owed more to vaudeville than rock theater: urbane, contrived, pushing formulas to absurd ends, with Russell an antic pile of hair and Ron a severe, unmoving mustache.
If anyone is still keeping count, Hippopotamus is Sparks’ twenty-fourth album – and their first in eight years. And what can Mael brothers Ron and Russell serve up on their twenty-fourth that hasn’t already been paraded on the previous twenty-three? Why, more of the same delicious idiosyncratic operatic seasick-giddy pop nonsense/ genius, of course. With tracks such as the grandiloquent Stravinsky-meets-Wagner title track and IKEA-referencing Scandinavian Design, the casual listener is reminded quite what a debt Franz Ferdinand (for one) owe these charming latter-day sonic Picassos – the quirky, lively beats and oddball vocals throwing beach-perfect harmonies and intricate, layered ideas sporadically into the mix.
The word “genius” gets tossed around fairly indiscriminately in pop music circles. And yet it’s hard to think up a better activating force that allows brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the long-running duo known as Sparks, to rhyme “hippopotamus” with “a book by Anonymous, a Bosch by Hieronymous, a Volkswagen microbus, Titus Andronicus and a woman with an abacus” in their latest album’s title track. It doesn’t stop there: They weave said rhymes into an insanely witty meditation on the kind of life dilemmas most of us only dream of, in a track that, musically, gently evokes the Oompa-Loompa song from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”.
23 albums in and with almost 50 years in business on the clock, one might expect Sparks’ ‘Hippopotamus’ to be something of a lumbering beast, much like the beloved animal of its title. This would be a mistake, for this is Sparks, and with their typical aplomb, the duo of Ron and Russell Mael have managed to craft yet another brilliant record, one which defies expectation and yet which is as idiosyncratically Sparks as ever. Take the title track, with its strident string section and whining organ lines, wherein Ron Mael uses deft alliteration to sing about finding various preposterous things – a woman with an abacus, a VW microbus, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the hippo of its title – in his Los Angeles pool.