In a sterile period for experimental pop music, Ron and Russell Mael have nailed down fifteen tracks in California which kindles daydreams, pinning hopes like merch-stall badges upon their fans’ space-dandy jackets. Off-kilter pop is the spine which carries the band’s latest album ‘Hippopotamus’. The rambling keys, which are so distinctive of Sparks, are aided by undulating synth reverberations on songs such as the stirring ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ and ‘A Little Bit Like Fun’.
The vagaries of Sparks complexion oscillates between meditative and a devil-may-care nature, pegging the listener. On the foolhardy ‘Giddy, Giddy’, the title works in tandem with the light-headedness of the melody before leading into the BBC Radio 6 favourite and monster smash ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’, with its Godhead figure narrating everything the world prays for, from finding missing pets to Arsenal winning – and is a truly breath-taking single propelled by an electronic drive grinding and griping with phenomenal authority.
Like some cultural safari, title track ‘Hippopotamus’ is full of rousing, agitated-lyrics and cacophonous din before tumbling into the glorious melancholy-hype of ‘Bummer’ which sees Russell Mael transform into The Fall’s Mark E. Smith at the chorus. Sparks’ lyricism remains a key weapon in the band’s arsenal, and the gratification in titles such as ‘I Wish You Were Fun’, ‘So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?’, and ‘Missionary Position’ plausibly surpass some of The Smiths’ finest inventions. On the former, the line “I wish you were fun – you say that your favourite colour’s brown” is an example of the simple but effective humour which the band have so often demonstrated within a number of their spicy compositions.
What is noticeable on ‘Hippopotamus’ is that there is no contrived endeavour to be popular – or even contemporary, and yet somehow the band prosper on both fronts. Film director Leos Carax’s accordion on ‘When You’re A French Director’ is unorthodox but works as a homage to the band’s apparent enthusiasm for his country, while American operatic singer Rebecca Sjowall’s contribution on closing track ‘Life With The MacBeths’ aides Sparks scornful outlook on television’s greed and need for ratings with a quite unearthly and beguiling reverence. This is fresh, Bohemian, tender and intelligent music. Take a step out of the mainstream and wallow in ‘Hippopotamus’ for a while.
Reviewer : Stephen Watt