Sparks’ first studio album in eight years, ‘Hippopotamus’, is either brilliant or naff depending on your outlook, but it’s most definitely enjoyable.
For all the many sublime moments during Sparks’ 45-year pop career, you can never quite shake the feeling in the back of your mind that it’s all just a big joke that got out of hand at some point in 1974. A conceit that the perpetrators are now so deep into, that they have no option but to continue with it.
For those who are not familiar with Sparks, they consist of two septuagenarian brothers, Russell and Ron Mael. For most of their 23 studio albums they have maintained a sort of weird tension between accomplished pop innovators and trite novelty act. Whilst Russell played the role of the group’s conventionally attractive frontman, Ron was the more mercurial of the pair. His modus operandi for most of his career has been to sit in the vicinity of a synthesizer wearing an expression of bafflement and contempt, occasionally deigning to play some music. In fact, for reasons I’m not sure anyone has ever gotten to the bottom of, Ron’s look between about 1978 and 1983 was a sort of Shoreditch version of Adolf Hitler.
They were last sighted two years ago as part of the joyous FFS project – a brilliantly conceived supergroup that skilfully melded together Franz Ferdinand’s distinctive esoteric art-pop style with Sparks’, erm, distinctive esoteric art-pop style. Art-pop squared, if you will. Perhaps it was the critical success of FFS that tempted Sparks back into the studio for the first time in eight years, and has also lead them to make a record that is much more recognisably pop than their most recent offering. (Their last studio album was a concept pop-opera exploring/imagining Ingmar Bergman’s relationship with Hollywood. Well of course it was.)
Hippopotamus gets off to a characteristically exuberant start with two its first three songs comparing very favourably to anything in the Sparks extensive back catalogue. The spiralling ‘Missionary Position’ is exactly what you think it would be, an ode to the world’s favourite method of coitus. This is followed by their latest single ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’, an essay on the regret of not living one’s life to the full in the form of a taught catchy four-minute pop song.
The classic Sparks motifs from their ‘70s and ‘80s glam rock and synth pop heyday appear throughout the album, with smart pithy lyrics, staccato rhythms, unapologetic repetition and falsetto vocals all present in abundance. Of course, if these elements are not mixed together with a certain degree of deftness, things get incredibly annoying incredibly quickly. Mercifully, most of the album just about stays on the right side of this. Just about.
There are a couple of notable failures including ‘Hippopotamus’, the album’s title track and first single, a failed exercise in quirkiness by numbers. Then there’s ‘Giddy Giddy’. Listening to this track is roughly analogous to being locked against your will in a bargain carnival funhouse. (Of course, it’s possible this is exactly the effect they were going for.)
Happily, however, these are the exceptions not the rule and, in the main, Hippopotamus is a collection of proficient pop songs sprinkled with Sparks’ tried and tested brand of pith and unusualness. Other highlights include ‘What The Hell Is It This Time’, which imagines the exasperation of a god being constantly bombarded with prayers full of increasingly inane requests and ‘Bummer’, which is perhaps the biggest earworm on the album.
So, is Hippopotamus another landmark in Sparks’ important body of work, or yet another novelty record in a long line of novelty records? I don’t really know the answer to this. One thing I am sure of though is that world is a more wonderful place when Sparks are making music. (7/10) (John Blease)
Listen to Hippopotamus by Sparks here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, art pop, BMG, Hippopotamus, indie, John Blease, review, Ron Mael, Russel Mael, Sparks
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