Sparks make good pop music. Not many people do that anymore, in fact, so few do that the word has started to hold negative connotations. Anyway, pop music is a pretty vague term in itself, The Beatles were pop, The Kinks, and Elvis too. Disco was pop, funk was pop, glam was pop, Kate Bush makes pop, but so does Calvin Harris, indie rock bands made the pop music of the last decade, there’s power-pop, psych-pop, electro-pop, contemporary hip-hop is probably the most popular music in the world right now, and once it was baroque music.
How likely is it that you are you going to find a group who actually incorporate the characteristics of so much of this open-ended term into their music that they can really be defined as pop, or even define pop, and if they did could it possibly be any good? Well, Sparks manage too (yes even contemporary hip-hop), and yes as already stated it’s very good. If you need more proof than the quirky sibling’s back catalog of culture-shaping-oddities their new album might just do it.
Hippopotamus is Sparks’ 23rd studio album, I may be partial to the odd typo in my writing but incredibly that is not one of them, combine this with a career spanning over 40 years, collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Franz Ferdinand, Leos Carax and Mini Mansions, a radio opera, a venture into film and a celebrity fan base that reads like a who’s who of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and you can see the true pedigree of these sometimes unsung heroes.
The album is a perfect cross-pollination of both new sounds and those cherry picked from the duo’s history; there are Queen-worthy harmonies, and honky-tonk pianos, theatrical ballads, Ron’s rigid digital chord patterns, ‘rock’ guitar parts, sequenced drums, neo-classical harpsichords, and slick contemporary production all delivered in the brothers own uncompromising zany way. We recently spoke to Russell who explains the process behind writing the tracks: “with this, things work within the compounds of three-and-a half-minute songs, so they’re discreet little nuggets; you treat each one as though it is a complete unit,” he said.
So topically how do you write the lyrics for 15 self-contained genre hopping individual narratives? Well, there’s ‘Probably Nothing’ a nod to everyday forgetfulness, The ode to IKEA furniture in ‘Scandinavian Design’, the infectiously giddy ‘Giddy Giddy’ With its lyrics about… well, being giddy, and the heart-felt ballad of the standardised form of intercourse for the white middle-classes in ‘Missionary Position’. Does such an eclectic mix of topics work as the basis of a pop album, well if it had been written by anyone but the Mael brothers or at a stretch David Byrne probably not, no. But luckily they were.
It’s somewhat amazing that Sparks are not one of the biggest bands in the world. Their influences can be heard on some of the biggest records throughout the last four decades, but the great thing about their respected cult status bobbing on the edge of the mainstream is that it allows generation after generation to marvel in their discovery of the brothers. If Hippopotamus is the first Sparks album you’ve heard or the 23rd – I’d be surprised if you didn’t love it either way.