23 albums in and with almost 50 years in business on the clock, one might expect Sparks’ ‘Hippopotamus’ to be something of a lumbering beast, much like the beloved animal of its title. This would be a mistake, for this is Sparks, and with their typical aplomb, the duo of Ron and Russell Mael have managed to craft yet another brilliant record, one which defies expectation and yet which is as idiosyncratically Sparks as ever.
Take the title track, with its strident string section and whining organ lines, wherein Ron Mael uses deft alliteration to sing about finding various preposterous things – a woman with an abacus, a VW microbus, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the hippo of its title – in his Los Angeles pool. It’s supremely potty, like an Oompa Loompa ditty from ‘Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory’, yet presented as an austere piece of almost classical grandeur. As a song, ‘Hippopotamus’ is also wryly humorous and cute enough to feel like a song better suited to a kids’ TV show – something as maddeningly odd as ‘Yo Gabba Gabba!’ or as innocent as The Wiggles – which is a pretty bizarre accolade for a song on a rock record. Yet even that pales in comparison to the supremely bonkers ‘Giddy Giddy’, which is a lot like Kraftwerk setting an obscure Doctor Seuss poem to a fizzing electronic soundtrack.
Setting aside three stand-out tracks – ‘Edith Piaf Said It Better’, ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’ and ‘So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?’, all of which belong among the absolute best pop songs that the Maels have ever fashioned – this album finds Sparks adroitly finding musical succour in the quotidian, such as forgetting what you were just going to say (‘Probably Nothing’). Elsewhere, they recast their own distinctive ‘70s sound as a backdrop for a song that praises traditional sexual attitudes at a time where the internet’s pornful bounty is seen as a new normal (‘Missionary Position’). The wry ‘Scandinavian Design’ sends up the impracticalities of hygge and minimalism, but also nods to their enthusiasm for Charles and Ray Eames’s chairs on the FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand; the frequent detours into French phrases on the likes of ‘When You’re A French Director’ seems to be a cynical opportunity on the part of the duo to reclaim Europe’s cool charm from the coldest parts of the continent, with all the worldly je ne sais quois that comes when you pepper your lyrics with romantic language.
It’s often easy to see Sparks as a bit of a novelty, and if you only listen to their lighthearted songs in that frame of mind, you almost certainly miss the point of this wonderful duo. With leftfield artsy smarts in abundance on ‘Hippopotamus’, this is enduring proof that this is what The Residents might have sounded like if they’d feasted upon glampop in the ‘70s rather than the more pranksterish elements of the avant garde. Pure vaudeville, pure theatre – and pure Sparks.
Words: Mat Smith
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