Review: Sparks –  ‘Hippopotamus’ (2017)



The Sparks are flying as Damian gets to review his favourite band

Sparks were formed in Los Angeles in 1972 by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. `Hippopotamus` is their first release since the pop opera album `The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman` in 2009, although there was the wonderful collaboration with Franz Ferdinand for FFS released in 2015.

The album opens with an almost throwaway lament to absentmindedness with the quirky “Probably Nothing”. Just Ron`s keyboards and Russell`s vocals, stark but so effective. A song about the championing of and the joys of a popular sexual act follows with “Missionary Position.” Who else would share a song about the joys or indeed pros and cons of the aforementioned sexual act and reasons why it`s preferred above all other acrobatic dalliances.

“Edith Piaf (Said it Better than Me) “ is a heart-breaking song about somebody whose life parallels the short life of the French cabaret singer who was famous for singing about Love, loss and sorrow. Ron`s piano is haunting and a wonderful platform for Russell`s vocals. The sound is really filled out with Dean Menta on guitars and Steven Nistor on drums. The mantra of `Life fast and die young and I was born to be bad` is almost painful. A wonderful song.

What I really love about Sparks is that they are so leftfield, who else could offer you a song about a sexual position, then follow it with a song about a torch singer then another about the benefits of beautifully constructed furniture?? Well that`s what we get with “Scandinavian Design” a simple tune with some anomalous lyrics. “Giddy Giddy” is really what it says on the tin, The definition of giddiness is frivolous and light-hearted, impulsive, flighty. I couldn`t have summed it up any better, all this and set to a slightly up tempo synthy tune, almost ravey at times.

“What The Hell Is It This Time?” a track about God being overworked, being asked by his followers for trivial indulgences and being fed up, as he has so much on his plate. Wonderfully shrewd and unusual.

I thought that “Unaware” was even a departure for Sparks. A strange melodic tune with an odd beat and lyrics about somebody oblivious to life.

At first the album title track “Hippopotamus” seems a simple tune in a similar vein to the Oompa Loompa song from the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film but I guarantee it will get in your subconscious. The words have a wonderful intelligence and wit, which is a trademark of the brothers. Where else in a song would you get references to the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch and Titus Andronicus, the Roman General from the William Shakespeare play. Genius.

An uplifting song about somebody`s death. Yeah that`s how I’d sum up “Bummer” A distanced view on the eulogies made about the person by people who didn`t really know the real dearly departed. The detached observer reflects on some things that they`ll never know.

“I Wish You Were Fun” is a whimsical reflection on a partner that is wonderful in every respect except humour. This track reminded me of “Without Using Hands” from 1975`s release `Indiscreet. `

We`re gifted curious verses again with the writer Ayn Rand getting namechecked but I’ll let you check her out.

Well from the sublime to the ridiculous, as they say and next up is the fantastically titled “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play/” I must admit I just had to sit back and enjoy this song. I was really stumped as to what it`s meaning was. Maybe the brothers Mael will enlighten us or maybe not! “When You’re a French Director” has a real Bal-musette flair about it and the accordion waltz accompanying the story is wonderfully played by Leos Carax. Sublime. The hypnotic “The Amazing Mr, Repeat” is an odd little ditty with the words rapidly fired out. A clanking train warning sound and an ice cream van jingle open up the penultimate track “A Little Bit Like Fun” a nice tune and an ode to Joy, Love and Fun.

The album is closed out with “Life With The Macbeths” a real analogy about life being played out in a similar vein to Shakespeare`s Lady Macbeth. The song is delightfully heightened with the addition of vocals from American opera singer Rebecca Sjöwall, The two voices really complement each other and take this song to another level.

What can be said about this latest offering from the brothers Mael?  I love the fact that they continue to challenge you both intellectually and musically. After nearly fifty years in the business, you could forgive them for resting on their laurels but no, not these guys. We get astute, intelligent lyrics almost to the point of being bizarre, accompanied with some catchy tunes and melodies.

A true masterpiece

Rating 9.5 /10

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