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Sparks, ‘Hippopotamus': Album Review

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For nearly 50 years, brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been continuously carving out a spot in this world that is truly all their own. From their earliest days as Halfnelson, (who formed in 1969), right up through this current living and breathing year of 2017, this duo have created music that defies categorization and sounds like no one else but Sparks.

The Maels have never gone away, had tabloid drama, or, for that matter, major success in their homeland, although they’ve had a handful of hits overseas. One thing they have consistently done is moved forward. After decades of twisted pop, kinetic rock and roll, cerebral disco and other surging sounds, the brothers greeted the new millennium with a genuine masterpiece called Lil’ Beethoven. Since its release in 2002, they have been on an incredible creative run, releasing a handful of top-shelf Sparks albums, a film project, and collaboration with Franz Ferdinand in F.F.S. Hippopotamus is the first proper Sparks record in nearly 10 years, and it is, without question, a five-star classic.

Hippopotamus explores various angles of Sparks’ sonic adventures over the years, and pulls them all together into one concrete and incredibly fresh batch of songs that betrays their years in the biz. “Missionary Position” is classic Sparks in every aspect, with one eye on the past, one on the future and one on the here and now. Meanwhile, how many pop songs manage to reference legendary French singer Edith Piaf? “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” finds that sharp wordplay and bravado melody hand-in-hand again. This is pop of an all-too rare form: clever, witty, and catchy as hell. Then again, Sparks have never languished in everyday topics for song lyrics, and who would want to?

“I don’t know, that’s a real mystery to us,” singer Russell Mael said in a recent interview. “As an artist you have a blank canvas, you can do anything at all that you wanna do. We’ve had our own little universe and the rules of our universe apply just to us and we’re puzzled by [musicians not stepping out the box]. Why are the same themes in pop music being done over and over? You know you can have the same themes, like a song that deals with a relationship for instance, but there are ways to do it in a non-cliché way and in a way that’s fresh, and it seems like that’s also your job as a songwriter and musician to come up with fresh ways of saying things.”

Case in point, the album’s second single, the dynamic “What the Hell Is It This Time?” The song is about God addressing his minions who are always asking for favors, telling them it had better be important. “I’ve millions to serve / You get on my nerves,” says God. You’d be hard-pressed to name one other act who sound this adventurous in their pursuit of musical adventures, let alone one with such a history already behind them.

The album’s title track, and first single, has been turning ears since its release. Here, they glue together futurist pop, humorously surrealist lyrics and an almost child’s sing-song structure, all filtered through a musicality worthy of Broadway. “I Wish You Were Fun,” “Unaware” and “Giddy Giddy” are playful modernist pop while “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln, Aside From That How Was the Play?” is twisted rock/pop defiant of any category. The album ends with the dramatic “Life With the Macbeths” which plays out like a mini-symphony of sorts.

Since day one, Ron and Russell Mael have been out of step with basically everything else in pop music. They have never sounded like anything or anyone else. Yes, there are lines traceable back to the likes of the Kinks, the Move as well as cinema and musical theater, but no one else ever put it all together into one stew that has remained so intriguing and tasty over nearly 50 years. Sparks remain a genuine treasure in this world of manual evacuation passed off as popular music.

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