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Date: 29/10/17

Sparks - "Hippopotamus" (BMG 538279612)

Front cover of 'Hippopotamus' by Sparks

Well, as I said back here, I ordered the new Sparks album as soon as I'd heard all the tracks on it. That I had heard them under less than optimum conditions was due to a severe and unprecedented outbreak of earwax which had put my whole world into mono.

The CD arrived last weekend, but it was only after I had had my right ear syringed on Thursday afternoon (not in any way an unpleasant experience, I might add), and been told by the nurse to keep on with the ear-drops for the left one, that I was in any position to actually listen to it with any degree of usefulness.

(There is, natch, a Wikipedia page on the subject of earwax. I haven't linked to it because it is illustrated, and we don't need that right now, do we?)

So, what part of the hippopotamus lies above the surface, and what below?

Well, on their first 'pop' outing since 2008's Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, we get fifteen tracks (sixteen if you get the Japanese release), and the titles alone (Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), What The Hell Is It This Time?, Life With The Macbeths) tell you that this is another Mael & Mael production.

Hippopotamus opens with the shortest track on the album (I keep wanting to say 'LP', but that would be giving my age away again). Probably Nothing, featuring only Ron Mael's grand piano (plus string synth near the end) and Russell's vocals, is a slow, poignant little song about the memory loss which manifests itself more and more as old age sets in (Russell is 69, Ron 72; I'm 55 and I'm getting it too).

The old ebullience returns on the next track, the afore-video'd Missionary Position, in which the joy of vanilla, non-osteopathically-treatable sex is celebrated. It's a reminder that the brothers can write great pop hooks but ally them to almost outrageous lyrical concepts ("And the acrobats, well they tend to scoff/All you know is that you can get her off."). This track is also the first indication that their current backing band (Dean Menta on guitar and bass - plus drums on one track - and Steve Nistor on drums - except for that one track) is an accomplished and tight unit indeed.

Not for the first time (and not for the last), I found myself going back to earlier Sparks material for a reference point; in this case Amateur Hour from Kimono My House (1974) which touched on the same area of human endeavour.

We then come to the aforementioned Edith Piaf but - as one would expect from a band which has always favoured an oblique take on the world - in this case Mlle. Piaf's most famous line is used ironically as the central character of the song doesn't so much bemoan the fact that his own life has been spectacularly mundane, but almost celebrates it ("Live fast and die young/Too late for that", "I was born to be bad/Not this time, not this time") and contains an absolute hit-worthy chorus.

Next up is perhaps the best track on the whole of Hippopotamus (which is quite an achievement), and shows the Maels' constant ability over the last forty-odd years to grab a faddish concept and expose its essential emptiness. Scandinavian Design does for the hyped-up idea of Nordic simplicity vis-Ó-vis home furnishings ("Time and space intertwined/Elegance, simple lines") by allying it to the tale of a man with an on-off relationship with a somewhat pretentious young woman who is at all other times someone else's arm-candy.

The locus classicus here (at least to me; write your own interpretation if you wish) is not one of Sparks' own songs, but Lennon & McCartney's Norwegian Wood, although in this case without the apparent arson at the end. Indeed, there is an almost Beatles-like pop sensibility to this track. It moves along with a steady pace and powerful yet unfussy arrangement which matches its subject matter perfectly.

The fifth track, Giddy Giddy has been the one which has gained the most censure from the critics for being 'tedious', but they have - being critics - missed the point. Although the purloining of drum'n'bass long after its vogue may seem retro at best, passÚ at worst, it is surely the correct genre to deploy to describe the frantic behaviour of people in a city (itself named 'Giddy', although probably based on the brothers' native Los Angeles). A satirical touch is provided by the visit of researchers from another - ungiddy - city, who decide that more study is needed and apply for further grant assistance to carry out the work.

We are then taken from 'giddy' to 'goddy' in What The Hell Is It This Time?", the title being the cry of an irascible deity plagued by the whining, trivial supplications of his followers ("Your little Band-Aid affair", "If Arsenal wins/He really don't care" - this last showing their undimmed Anglophilia) when he has larger matters to deal with ("If you're feeling faint/Appeal to a saint"). The piece is backed by an arrangement underpinned by cellos (albeit synthetic) which gives a suitably heavy fundament to the song. The middle section also has echoes of the slower, more ambient parts of Kraftwerk's Tour De France 2003.

The following track, Unaware, is far more subtle and melancholic a piece. It's clear from the lyrics that we have the description of a new-born who is, as the title indicates, unaware of anything in the world other than her parents who "...stare down/Faces like two clowns/That's all she knows of, that's all". So, she doesn't know about ecological degradation, showbiz, sport and politics shenanigans, and the quotidian grind-me-down disappointments of life in the modern, over-developed world ("Taylor Swift has something new/Nike has a brand new shoe"), before ending with the understandable but unachievable wish that she could be warned ("Wish I could warn her/Don't turn that corner/Stay unaware of it all"). The instrumentation is guitar-heavy, perhaps reflecting the effects of Sparks' collaboration with Franz Ferdinand a little while back, whilst Russell's voice is coated in reverb, which reminded me of early-seventies glam-pop.

We now reach the title track itself in which, suitably enough, the classic quirkiness of music and lyrics which have correctly been associated with Sparks since the very beginning are made most manifest. The arrangement is orchestral, of a style they used heavily some twenty years ago, but is allied to lyrics which are surreal and clever in the best sense. The main rhyme, starting with 'hippopotamus', manages to be maintained throughout, although the inclusion of 'Hieronymus Bosch' entails the splitting of the name across two lines. The overall effect of the track is of a song which would fit well into a version of Sesame Street aimed at the children of committed Dadaists.

Bummer is another one of the Maels' musical playlets, where the first-person protagonist is giving the oration at the funeral of someone who was clearly a friend but was also a rival, especially for the love of the wife of the deceased. His observations on the attitude of the mourners, the necessity of keeping his distance from the grieving widow out of repect, are pointedly sardonic.

And here I have to admit to a difficulty. Because I have not kept up - nor striven officiously to keep up - with what is au courant in the pop and rock world, I can't pick out what the musical style of this track reminds me of; some element of mid-80s pop/rock, perhaps? Someone will say something, I suppose.

I have no such problem with the next track, I Wish You Were Fun. The style is clearly that of a number from a cabaret, which causes us to recall that the Maels have always felt more affinity with the European style of music than with that of their native California. The lyrics describe the thoughts of a man who is attracted to a woman who has every attribute he could desire, except the one named in the title (due, it seems, to an upbringing in a repressed, authoritarian society).

I can similarly identify certain musical influences (even if the perception of them is merely in my own head) in So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln, Aside From That How Was The Play?. I can hear reverberations from, of all things, early/mid-90s Chumbawamba in the chorus, and from Kate Bush in her more Celtic-leaning moments in the verse. The lyrics seem to be an internal monologue by a man stuck in a boring meeting where nothing seems to move on, nothing seems to be decided. Despite such a dour scenario, the track moves on with a strong bass underpinning the arrangement behind Russell's verbal dexterity.

When You're A French Director is where the boys' satirical intent is at its most obvious. Done in the form of a cabaret valse, it contains the funniest lines on the whole album (and this is a fan of the nouvelle vague saying it!):

"When you're a French director, you're an auteur as well.
What does that mean?
Every scene
Must be obscure as hell."

The true stroke of comic genius, however, is to get that line (and many others on this track) sung - down the telephone by the sound of it - by their friend and collaborator Leos Carax, who is...a French director. He also plays a mean accordion here, which just goes to show that cultural stereotypes do have some grounding in veritÚ.

The Amazing Mr. Repeat is difficult to fathom in some respects. It appears to be about a movie agent or producer, but the storyline makes me wonder in the light of the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein whether Ron and Russell too were aware of what was going on (this album was recorded before the shit started hitting the fan, but Weinstein's activities had been an open secret in Tinseltown for years). The music accompanying the tale - whatever it may really be about - is synthpop which recalls the band's highly successful liaison with Giorgio Moroder nearly forty years ago, with a strong bass component which moves the track on at a breakneck pace.

A Little Bit Like Fun is musically in the same area, with possible nods to Art Of Noise and - to my ears at least - hints of the mellotron of Tony Banks on early period Genesis. The lyrics don't carry anything in the way of a message bar the literal, which makes it the least interesting track on the album, but it's still well made and executed.

Hippopotamus closes with Life With The Macbeths, which takes Shakespeare's infamous Scottish tragedy and re-frames it as a modern-day reality TV show. The cynicism of such an enterprise is reflected in the lyrics ("Same station, same time, new feuds", "One season, that's all you'll see/As the Lady inspires me to depths unseen/Killing all in my way"), and ending with the line, "Life With The Macbeths is sure to score". The music is orchestral, and Russell's vocals are suitably supplemented by the American operatic star Rebecca Sj÷wall. It ends the album on a suitably dramatic note.

So, to sum up (which I bet you wish I had done a few hundred words sooner): this is an album of great musical and lyrical inventiveness. The singing and playing is highly proficient and confident, and the production is clean and always dovetails with the material.

Is this a good album? Undeniably. Is it Sparks' best album? Very probably, although only the hindsight of posterity can ultimately make that judgement. Is it their most consistently strong album? Without doubt: the fact that the 55 minutes passes so smoothly that you're at the end and wanting more is one sign of that (another sign being that I've now listened to it four times in less than three days, and got something more out of it each time). And it's a remarkable re-flowering of two of the most broad-ranging and veering talents of the rock era.