It’s been 45 years since sibling masterminds Ron and Russell Mael (piano and vocals, respectively) issued their eponymous debut album as Sparks (technically, a re-release of an album released under a different name, but let’s not split hairs). Since then, they’ve released roughly two dozen studio LPs, with a blend of cerebrally tongue-in-cheek lyrics, infectious melodies and robust yet peculiar arrangements that have cemented Sparks as one the most idiosyncratic and dependable American pop/rock acts of all time. Although many fans agree that the band’s mid-‘70s run was their peak, Sparks have never failed to meet, if not exceed, expectations, and that holds true for their latest offering, Hippopotamus. A delightfully catchy, astute and varied collection, it’d be an exceptional release for any group, let alone one as aged as Sparks.
Joining the duo on the album—which follows 2009’s The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman if you discount 2015’s FFS supergroup collaboration—are guitarist Dean Menta and drummer Steven Nistor. That said, it feels right that opener “Probably Nothing” is a brief ballad consisting mostly of the Maels (it’s as if they’re reclaiming their place at the head of the table). It’s a lovely track, too, with a sparse and profound theatrical elegance. It segues wonderfully into the whimsical “Missionary Position,” a dense, warm, and feisty gem that’s as hypnotic as it is inviting and darkly humorous. In a way, it feels like an adults-only Disney sing-along, and it would’ve fit perfectly on Sparks’ 1970s benchmarks (especially since Russell hasn’t lost a shred of his colorful flamboyance).
Read Paste’s recent interview with Sparks here.
“Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” is more affected and orchestral, with horns and strings aiding the piece as it evolves naturally and substantially. Like much of Hippopotamus, there’s a hefty sense of maturity here, so what it lacks in overt playfulness it makes up for with weighty songwriting. That’s not to say that there’s no fun to be had, though, as follow-ups “Scandinavian Design” and “Giddy Giddy” demonstrate. The former conjures Brian Eno and SMiLE-era Brian Wilson in its incredibly imaginative interlockings, while the latter is an off-kilter (and marginally repetitious) bit of silliness with plenty of rhythmic, textural, and vocal changes that evoke classic Sparks.
Along the same lines, “Unaware” showcases how diverse the record is by recalling the tribal production of Kate Bush’s masterful The Dreaming. As for the title track, it, like “Giddy Giddy,” is endearingly mindless and tempting (with even more musical, lyrical, and melodic intrigue). From there, they return to the graver essence of earlier tracks with the histrionic and inventive “Bummer,” which in turn provides a strong contrast to the carefree lightness of “I Wish You Were Fun.”
Towards the end of the full-length, “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?” offers a surprising amount of frenzy and tension, “When You’re a French Director” (which, naturally, features an appearance from a French director, in this case, Leos Carax) proves to be pleasingly carnivalesque, and closer “Life with the Macbeths”—as you’d expect from a Shakespearean song—is an operatic ode whose ever-changing arrangement is as ambitious and alluring as its dramatic central duet. It’s a stunning conclusion.
Sparks has always been one-of-a-kind, and that remains true with Hippopotamus. Again, this would be a marvelous collection for any artist, let alone one that’s been around for so long. In fact, it may rank as one of their best outings yet, as its multifaceted compositional creativity, coupled with its consistently fetching melodies and words, makes it a thoroughly impressive and engaging listen. As always, Sparks shows its stylistic siblings how it’s truly done.