What the Hell Is It This Time? The New Sparks Album

“Live fast and die young, too late for that, too late for that,” chants Sparks’ vocalist Russell Mael on the methodically catchy “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”, one of the cornerstone tracks on Hippopotamus, the group’s 23rd studio album. We should consider ourselves lucky the Mael brothers never fell victim to the rock and roll pratfalls of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, et al. Instead they’ve carved out a wonderful niche for themselves as critical pop darlings over an almost 50-year career that’s taken them all the way from radio hitmakers to cult favourites and back again (Hippopotamus currently sits at number seven on the Official UK Charts, their first top-ten appearance since 1974’s Propaganda). Save for perhaps the Fall, few artists can match Sparks’ tenacity to engage with the ever-changing musical landscape. No matter the era – glam rock, disco, new wave, or EDM – the Mael brothers always offer their own unique spin on each genre and yet somehow make it all sound quintessentially Sparks. Given that since 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven Sparks have primarily focused on crafting orchestral-inspired compositions, Hippopotamus serves as somewhat of a return to form for fans of the band’s earlier output, mixing the guitar-driven glam rock of Kimono My House and Indiscreet with later keyboard-infused albums like Angst in My Pants and In Outer Space. That’s not to say Hippopotamus feels like a step backwards for the Mael brothers. In fact, managing to assemble such a cohesive and gorgeous blend of Sparks’ various stylistic periods is a major achievement in its own right. Highlights include “Missionary Position”, an anthem for sexual complacency, “I Wish You Were Fun”, a cathartic jaunt for anyone in a boring relationship, and “What the Hell Is It This Time?”, written from the perspective of an exasperated God sick of dealing with his dim-witted creation. It’s not all perfect, though. Clocking in at almost an hour, the runtime feels just a tad long. Although Sparks could’ve probably done well to trim the fat on Hippopotamus, the fact remains that in 2017 the Mael brothers are releasing compelling and clever pop music that holds up to their finest work. We should all hope to age half as gracefully.   

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