Lost Chords and Serenades Divine #3 by Stephen McClurg
Sparks: Hippopotamus (2017)
The writers and composers work the street.
Bach’s new score is crumpled in his pocket,
Dante sways his ass-cheeks to the beat.
~ from “Hollywood Elegies” by Bertolt Brecht (trans. Adam Kirsch)
Sparks has maintained their standards and strangeness throughout more than a four-decade career. Their new album broke the top 10 in England, the first time they’ve been on the charts since the ‘70s. They are also in their 70s and, thankfully, not an easy band to describe. Much of their work reminds me of Roxy Music filtered through musical theater. Since most of their output features songwriter Ron Mael’s keyboard and piano playing, they’ve been called “baroque pop,” which as a genre seems to mean pop music with a dash of classical instrumentation, such as the piano pitched up to sound like a harpsichord in the Beatles’ “In My Life,” or the grand little symphonies of mid-’60s Beach Boys. They’ve been called glam, and even electropop, and I can’t think of another band that has been described as a The Mothers of Invention meets the Monkees. All of that really means one never knows what to expect from a Sparks album. While not perfect, some songs lack the expected vibrancy of a Sparks track, Hippopotamus is a fun pop record, made with intelligence and wit.
“Probably Nothing” is a gorgeous opener and one of several places on the record that reminds me of Michael Nyman’s work, particularly with director Peter Greenaway. At less than two minutes of piano and vocals, with maybe four chords of strings, and a cymbal wash, it somehow manages to tell the story of almost every love song–without a chorus, or at least not a traditional one.
“Missionary Position” seems like a bad joke, but somehow they make it work. It’s a track that feels like it could be a part of a Broadway show and is an ode to either practicality, even comfort, or to a lack of adventurousness, depending on how you interpret lyrics like “You might pride yourself, you’re so Avant garde/ But we’re neoclassicists, I guess, at heart/ Patronise all you like, we both like the missionary position.” If we take that baroque pop tag seriously, Sparks is a neoclassicist group, but not just because of the piano. They aren’t working with the hippest producers, making the sickest beats, but that, overall, works in their favor. At once it announces a songwriting tradition, but also renounces fads or noise as the only options for sounding new.
I may be misreading it, but “Scandinavian Design” seems to be a response to “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, but for an Ikea generation. “Norwegian Wood,” about an affair involving John Lennon, is a reference to a type of cheap paneling that was in style at the time. In the song, a girl leaves a guy and he gets his revenge by burning the paneling to keep warm, or in some readings, by setting their love nest on fire. There is a similar relationship, in “Scandinavian Design,” though it doesn’t end in fire, but in the icy “elegance [and] simple lines” that offer “no escape.” Neither partner is happy. Neither is angry. With or without the connection to a classic song, the last twenty seconds with slide guitar are sublime.
Sparks’ lyrical wit oddly balances with a penchant for the absurd, even silly.
The title track makes me think of the Residents writing children’s music. It’s about things stuck in a pool, including a hippopotamus, which is later joined by a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. “Giddy Giddy” is at once funny and nightmarish; I envision rapping aristocrats. “Giddy” fills in for whatever slang is being used for being happy or with-it or whatever. The track feels like a dig on our culture’s frequent default to entertainments that mask deeper anxieties and resentments
“I Wish You Were Fun,” an almost perfect ballad to me, wryly takes on pop sadness. They even work in some “la la las” and lyrics like, “In every other way I find you amazing, but one / I wish you were fun” and “Glad that she’s no Ayn Rand, humorless to the nth degree.” A few tracks later, “A Little Bit Like Fun” plays like a lost ELO / Beach Boys collaboration track for an ‘80s movie soundtrack that I never knew I wanted.
“Life with the Macbeths” is powered by stately piano reminiscent of Moonlight Sonata that turns both baroque and Rosemary’s Baby with the addition of harpsichord. Lady and King Macbeth sing to each other in this bizarre, but effective, showpiece that closes the record. The lyrics reimagine the Macbeth’s on a reality show whose ratings soar with their increasingly bad behavior. Like the band itself, not everyone will enjoy this conceit, but it becomes that much better for the particular listener who does.
You can find Sparks records, interviews, and videos online.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.