The Maels have built a career predicated on confounding expectations.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael have built a career predicated on confounding expectations. As Sparks, they’ve released 24 albums, virtually none of which carry what one could refer to as a decidedly “Sparksian sound.” This, coupled with their eccentric personalities, reliance on esoteric lyrics and visuals and a strict, almost pathological refusal to remain musically static has made the band a hard sell to all but their most ardent fans. Indeed, they are something of an acquired taste, Russell’s strangled vocals conveying Ron’s surrealistic, often wickedly-funny lyrics over everything from glam rock to Moroder-aided disco to the vanguard of New Wave to classical and nearly all points in between. If nothing else, they’ve established an extremely deep stylistic reservoir from which to pull.
By refusing to function as a band with any sort of immediately recognizable or discernable sound, Sparks have managed to constantly sound fresh and new from album to album. After years of releasing everything from the synth/house/Europop of Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins to their operatic The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman on their own Lil’ Beethoven imprint, the brothers Mael are once again operating with the backing of a major label. Having struck an amicable deal with the folks at BMG following the completion of the album that would become Hippopotamus, Sparks’ idiosyncratic pop weirdness now receives the full financial support of a label who has granted them carte blanche in the promotion and presentation of the album.
And what an intriguing round of promotion it has been. Former film students, the Maels have always walked a fine line between the audio and visual, creating screenplays in miniature within Ron’s knotty lyrics that practically beg for an on-screen (or perhaps on-stage) physical representation of the action contained therein. Having released a handful of videos in advance of the album, they again show their singular aesthetic to be firmly intact. The video for the album’s first single and title track features charming chalkboard animation that simply acts out the nonsensical lyrics of a man who awakens one day to find the titular creature in his swimming pool. From there, all kinds of strange things start showing up: a book by Anonymous; a late work by Hieronymus Bosch; a 1958 Volkswagen microbus driven by a “trippy old hippie”; a snorkeling Titus Andronicus; and a woman with an abacus who “Looks Chinese” (“Not that I’m prejudice/ No not me,” Russell quickly asserts).
If a quick scan of the track names weren’t enough to determine your tolerance for such high-minded wordplay and lack of self-seriousness, the above laundry list of items esoteric and abstruse will certainly be a litmus test for those not yet fully indoctrinated into the Sparks catalog. “Edith Piaf (Said it Better than Me),” “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?,” “Missionary Position” and “I Wish You Were Fun” are but four of the choicer titles Hippopotamus contributes to a canon of songs like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” “The Number One Song in Heaven” and “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?”
“Historically, historically we make an appeal/ To something greater than we are when we need to heal/ But don’t concern him with your little Band-Aid affair/ His temper will flare, he’ll rise from his chair,” Russell warns before launching into the chorus of “What the Hell is it This Time?,” no doubt a recurring thought in the mind or consciousness of any potential omniscient, all-powerful god figure. “It’s a little retro and a bit passé/ But you know you’ll make her feel A-Okay/ And she feels alright, the stars are bright/…And the acrobats, well they tend to scoff/ All you know is that you can get her off…/The tried and true is good enough for me and you,” he cheekily sings on “Missionary Position” about the titular sexual position over a sing-song melody and ripping full rock band arrangement that would not have felt out of place on Kimono My House.
Indeed, Hippopotamus pulls deeply from the Sparksian well, showing off nearly every musical incarnation of the band over the album’s 15 tracks. Though allegedly not a conscious choice, the album serves as an ideal entry point, its sound a distillation of the band’s essence over the past nearly half-century. From the classically-informed (“Edit Piaf (Said it Better than Me)”) to Europop/synth/techno-weirdness (“Giddy Giddy”) to New Wave (“Unaware”) to glam (“Missionary Position”), nearly every facet of Sparks is on display on Hippopotamus. And while this doesn’t necessarily make for the best Sparks album (though it’s still damn good), it does show that, after more than two dozen albums and nearly 50 years creating music together, the brothers’ singular focus on their musical personae remains firmly intact. And how many bands – let alone brothers(!) – can claim that?