Album review: SPARKS – Hippopotamus

SPARKS – Hippopotamus

BMG [Release date 08.09.17]

‘Hippopotamus’ is a triumph of pop’s true potential over the usual clichéd familiar fare.

It’s a cross genre album bursting with creativity, humour and stylistic diversity. The lyrical word plays, eclectic themes and nuanced melodies are shaped by Russell Mael’s edgy falsetto and brother Ron’s stuttering rhythms, which gives the band its unique artistic style.

The broad based lyrics range from the perceptive and sometimes sophisticated, to the polar opposite of naive and surreal. You might expect nothing less from a band that has over the course of 45 years, grown from its early glam rock success to embrace new wave, disco, chamber pop, lounge, spoken word pieces and operetta.

Keyboard player Ron Mael approaches composition as if dropping pieces into a musical jigsaw. He explores all manner of insistent rhythms and musical motifs with an innate feel for uplifting melodies and tension resolving hooks.

‘Hippopotamus’ can equally be filed under rock (or pop) art, from the conceptual album cover – sans band name or album title – through to an eclecticism that takes in a bewildering array of diverse subject matter.

And while ‘Hippopotamus’ doesn’t quite have a coherent linear core, everything hangs together both lyrically and sonically as part of the bigger whole.

‘Hippopotamus’ is a subtly balanced set that bravely starts with the subject of memory loss on a spoken word piece called ‘Probably Nothing’.

If music makes its biggest impact when uncovering universal truths, then Sparks really hit base with the Saga generation.

They surreally evoke a Victorian past on ‘Missionary Position’, a bouncy song with an infectious chorus about traditional sexual mores. But as with all things Sparks, for every apparent statement there’s a contrary position. ‘Missionary Position’ for example, is apparently counterbalanced by ‘I Wish You Were Fun’, on which Russell delivers the almost pleading line: “Dream of just letting off some steam.”

They hit their stride on the beautiful melody and Parisian grandeur of ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’, with one of Russell’s best ever vocals.

And they complete a mini triumvirate with ‘Scandinavian Design’, on a spatial arrangement that beautifully evokes the line and symmetry of the modern furniture subject matter: “Time and space intertwined, Elegance, simple design, Scandinavian Design.”

If their use of synths is sometimes annoying and occasionally dulls their sonic impact, Russell’s subtle layered vocals allied with a raft of contemporary beats provides a counter uplifting quality.

The title track is an exemplar of their later career dalliance with vocal repetition. The song might be a metaphor about LA and is full of artistic, literature and cultural references that conjures up filmic imagery.

With 15 tracks and a total running time of well over 50 minutes, ‘Hippopotamus’ is bigger than an old school vinyl album, meaning that tracks such as ‘A Little Bit Like Fun’ and the lyrically clever ‘The Amazing Mr. Repeat’ fail to make the impact of what’s gone before.

But there’s an inherent pull to the music and thoughtfully juxtaposed tracks such the stop-start and complex/simple vocal dichotomy of ‘Bummer’ and the playful ‘I Wish You Were Fun’ gives the album it’s essential flow.

They finish with the darkly humorous, harpischord led ‘Life With The Macbeths’, which features opera singer Rebecca Sjöwall who hits an incredible note on the outro.

‘Hippopotomas’ is Sparks’s most complete work. It continues their apparent quest to tear up the rock manual and take their brand of music to new exciting places. Long may they strive to do so. ****½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00

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