First up I am a Sparks fan, when the Queen Of Burtonwood grumbles about the amount of music here, I blame Ron and Russell Mael. 43 years ago the first album that I bought was Propaganda, so for four fifths of my life, Sparks have been close by. I'm also a little different to a lot of similar aged Sparks fans who think everything has always been fantastic and hunky dory. The 80's were not very kind to Sparks, there are some real clunkers away from Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants.
Ron Mael should be celebrated as one of music's great lyricists, rather than the weird guy on the keyboards, no one writes lyrical couplets like Ron and that's why most of the 80's output irritates me because an album like In Outer Space sounds so twee and is lyrically banal. It's as though the songs were phoned in.Sparks have always moved in whichever direction they pleased and they've took a lot of the fans with them, but what they've also managed to do is bring the young along with them, appealing to a student audience whatever the year is.
There's also an irritation here concerning some reviews from people who are putting up Sparks as National Treasures who have always been beloved, they treat Jeff Lynne and ELO the same way, there were times when both couldn't get a decent hearing. The thing I love about the band is that they treat every album as though it was a debut and the people who buy it are assumed to be hearing Sparks for the first time.
This has been a fine approach and meant that the history isn't what brings a lot to the party, the listeners hooked at listening to Dick Around would listen to an album like Indiscreet, one of my Top 10 albums ever in bemusement if they heard it before Hello Young Lovers. This is their first song based studio album in nine years and the three before have been incredibly inventive, so how would Hippopotamus compare to their recent form and general back catalogue.
Well, the album is wonderful, truly so, no two songs are the same, it even closes with a duet with Operatic Soprano Rebecca Sjowall. The collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, FFS, revealed that Sparks were writing three minute pop songs again and there's plenty of that here with the likes of What The Hell Is It This Time?, A Little Bit Of Fun and the magnificent, Missionary Position with it's piano riff. The latter could be one of their best songs ever, praise indeed, it sits happily here and could sit just as well on Kimono My House.
Ron Mael's lyrics are at the top of their game, as are the song subjects which are as left field as you could ever want. The wonder of Ikea, people and their petty prayers and the title track asks how so many things got in the pool such as a Hippopotamus, a woman with an abacus and a Volkswagen Campervan. I can only think of one person with such lyrical depth about banal subjects and that's Randy Newman.
There's plenty here for those who, like me, like their Sparks weird and enough for those who like the dance and a host of great great Pop. Whatever stage you joined Sparks at, it is catered for and the album as a whole stands up alone beautifully, so you feel free to get hooked. The upcoming live tour promises much, particularly with the marvellous Mini Mansions in tow. Live you can expect lots of Hippopotamus in the set, 8 of the 15 songs I believe and all the favourites, plus a couple of surprise inclusions.
How many bands have survived 45 years and have a new album out that sounds as fresh as the first? Sparks don't rest on their greatest hits, they are interested in the now but are grateful that you like their past. Without doubt, this band changed my life and showed what music can mean to you. I wouldn't want to be the 11 year old me again, but thank goodness I've still got the Mael Brothers.
You can buy the album here and everywhere.