Sparks - "A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip" (BMG 538603222)
After the great critical acclaim received by 2017's Hippopotamus (reviewed here), one would view the approach of a new album from Sparks with a certain degree of trepidation; could they pull off the same level of success again?
Luckily, a preview of all the tracks on the new set, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, by virtue of the band putting them all out on YouTube in advance, was able to assuage any doubts before a purchase needed to be made.
As ever, just looking at the track titles would be enough to know whose work this was; Sainthood Is Not In Your Future, Stravinsky's Only Hit, Please Don't Fuck Up My World should be sufficient to advertise another Mael Brothers production.
So what steadily drips out from the fourteen tracks on this disc?
The lead-off song, All That gives us a foretaste of a recurring elegiac motif to be found on the album, where the lyrics look back at a lifetime ("All the smiles and all the frowns/And all the ups and all the downs"), with an indication of a sense of increasing decrepitude ("Hey, help me out, I can't find my left shoe") much like in Probably Nothing, the opening track on Hippopotamus. Such a process of thought is inevitable, I suppose, given that both Ron and Russell are now in their seventies; but it is put to an anthemic - almost joyous - singalong score which owes a clear debt in style to late-period Beatles and some of John Lennon's less contrivedly outré solo output.
This is followed by I'm Toast, which also does more than nod to failing prospects, this time more in the fields of interpersonal relationships and career paths ("One hit wonders, workplace blunders, some hang on too long"). Musically, some critics have said that they hear echoes of Joan Jett's cover of The Arrows' I Love Rock 'N Roll, but I don't hear it myself; to me, it sounds more like a combination of Talking Heads' heavier tracks and some of the lighter elements of grunge.
Like the title track of Hippopotamus, Lawnmower is the first example on this album of Sparks' talent for advanced silliness, in which a man obsesses about his power tool to the detriment of his relationship with his girlfriend (who is from Andover, and packs up the Land Rover prior to leaving him; not the last evidence of the brothers' consistent Anglophilia to be found on the album). The daft words are accompanied by a bouncingly jolly tune which fits the mood perfectly, and which reminds me somewhat of some of the late Simon Jeffes' work with the Penguin Café Orchestra back in the eighties and early nineties.
The aforementioned "Sainthood..." is a much darker piece which - over a swirling pattern of electronic riffs themselves overlaid with acoustic guitar and drums - tells of the violent end to a relationship, with the consequent dislocation ("All interaction's now suspended") and disillusionment ("Where's the happily ever after?").
Pacific Standard Time reminds one of the classic Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) from the previous album in terms of its piano and (faux-)string arrangement, but is somewhat slower and much more melancholy in its tenor, being seemingly an elegy to the boys' native Los Angeles, its superficiality and its effect on visitors. The two sections which diverge from the main theme are reminiscent of some of the piano-led pop of the seventies and eighties (but please don't ask what, exactly; I can't find my left shoe on some of these things, knowing simply that I've heard something similar a long time ago).
But on any Sparks album, one is never far from the gloriously cuckoo, and Stravinsky's Only Hit provides us with a pell-mell tale (rather on the same lines as Talent Is An Asset from 1974s Kimono My House) of what would have happened if old Igor had switched from writing 'difficult' orchestral music to writing pop smashes. I'm sure that there are quotes from Stravinsky's own works shoehorned in to this piece - it would be too much of an open goal for them to miss - but I am so ignorant of his works that I can't be definitive. It's an amusing romp in any case.
Left Out In The Cold is one of those Sparks songs which constitute an internal monologue; in this case, an employee of a Japanese clothing company who is sent to be the head of research in the cold fastnesses of Manitoba and is left, well, out in the cold to live through the decline in his career ("Once I had a mammoth mansion...All that's now past"). It is set to a tune and arrangement in a jaunty Latin style which, again like many Mael & Mael songs, whilst seemingly incongruent with the lyrical content actually points up the ironies in it.
Self-Effacing is a song which could count as the theme for the lives of some of us, namely those of us who are never confident enough to boast of our abilities and achievements. It's all there; "I'm not the guy who says "I'm the guy"", "Want to be known as someone unknown", "I don't deserve first, second or third". Whilst at the same time castigating ourselves for not being more forward; "Why can't I pose, wear flashier clothes?", "Why can't I preen, be part of the scene?". The lyrics are set to a marvellous tune, including a second theme which has some echoes of late-sixties guitar- and organ-led pop.
Track nine, One For The Ages follows much the same theme, in that it is about a poor Joe Schmo who works in the accounts department of a company and who labours into the night writing the book which he believes will take him to greatness and all that that would entail. It's put to a tune which is in both its style and arrangement, like Pacific Standard Time, similar to Edith Piaf..., but of a similar tempo. The difference being that, whereas the protagonist of that earlier song was almost glad that his life was dull and quotidian, here there is a desperate desire for action and acclaim.
If there is a track on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip which doesn't quite work, then it's Onomato Pia. The 'joke' (such as it is) about an Italian girl who - either through "Learning disorder or fantastic skill" - seems able to get her message (whatever it may have been) across by gestures, sighs and pauses. It is saved by music which sounds like a show tune with enough oompah to fill an orchestra pit. As a result, it's jolly enough, but it's hard to see the point of it beyond that.
By complete contrast, iPhone is - to me and to other reviewers I've read - the standout track on the album, epitomising as it does the great variety of musical influences in Sparks' music, the imagination to create an intriguing idea and the lyrical flair to carry it off superbly. We get it from the very opening line, "Adam said to Eve/Repositioning his entire leaf...", and the song goes on to describe the frustrations of not just Adam with Eve, but Abe Lincoln with the crowd at Gettysburg and Mrs Steve Jobs with her husband in trying to communicate when their intended audience is utterly distracted; hence the chorus of "Put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me". The musical content is particularly interesting to me as well, being in a hard-edged synthpop style which wouldn't be too far out of place on one of DJ Todd's Real Synthetic Audio shows
The Existential Threat again shows how Sparks have so often drawn on musical styles from all over the place, in that the tune is based very strongly on...klezmer!? Well, what would you expect from a couple of nice Jewish boys? And here it is used as a backing to a song whose lyrics are a waspish commentary on our ability to be made anxious and paranoid about threats (some real, mostly confected) we are told by our 'leaders' and media imperil us every day. The mesh of the jolting, staccato notes with the antsy emotions expressed in the words is very artfully done, even if you think that Ron (who probably still writes the majority of the band's lyrics) was having a sly revenge on Russell by giving him such a tumbling, wordy lyric to deliver (it wouldn't be the first time; at least on this occasion it's in a key which the younger Mael doesn't have to strain at).
The penultimate track, Nothing Travels Faster Than The Speed Of Light, frustrated me only in as much as I had great difficulty in dredging out of the ever-deepening swamp of my mind exactly what the music reminded me of. The nearest I could approximate from my own musical experience was, strangely to some I'm sure, the sort of slow, heavy ambient music which Hawkwind were creating in the early nineties (which was the point, incidentally, at which they started to lose me). The music provides the backdrop to a song about how what we assume we know we may not know after all, and that it may well not be true in any case. It's a very atmospheric piece which means that the slowness of its tempo doesn't cause the song to drag.
A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip closes with the track which I trailed when it was released as a single(!) at the tail end of 2019, namely Please Don't Fuck Up My World. And here the elegiac mood created at the very start of the album returns, not merely in the sentiments, but in the music through which it is expressed. An almost pleading melody, perhaps of the sort which would figure on somewhat iffy well-intentioned 'save the earth' songs from previous eras, is here offset by the suspicion in the listener that there is a certain degree of parody in the lyrics, stating as they do that, for example, "Rivers, mountains and seas/No one knows what they're there for/Still it's easy to see/That they're things to be cared for".
This is before the children's choir - preceded by what I can only call a 'Hollywood chord' which I associate with the supposed 'uplift' moment in an awful, cloying movie - comes in to sing the second half of the song (and what the parents of the members of the Coldwater Canyon Youth Choir thought when their kids were asked to sing the word 'fuck' five times may be left to the imagination).
Having said that, it's a pleasing enough song to end the album, and who could argue with the sentiments?
At this point, mention must be made of the backing musicians on the album. Only drummer Steve Nistor remains from the ensemble which recorded Hippopotamus, but the new recruits are as tight and lively as their earlier equivalents, and there is far more acoustic guitar apparent than on any previous Sparks album. The production (by the Maels themselves) is strong and clear, and the arrangements always effective.
So, is this a good album? Indubitably. Is this a great album? Well yes, I'm sure that it is. Is it better even than Hippopotamus? It's a close run thing, but there are so many earworms (of the good kind) amongst the fourteen tracks and only one track which could be dismissed as 'filler' that A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip does, by that small margin, exceed its predecessor. A remarkable achievement by any band, but particularly by a couple of septuaginarians who show no sign of running out of either energy or ideas.
File under: Music