By Madeline Bocaro
As we report every time a new Sparks album is released – this is the best one yet! Ron Mael has done it yet again, perpetuating his preposterous pop songs into the future and beyond. I will not repeat in every song description how absolutely dazzling and clear Russell’s vocal performances are. I will just say it once. No wait, I must shout it again – RUSSELL’S VOCALS ARE ABSOLUTELY DAZZLING! The album is self-produced. The band, features two old school Sparks players; Dean Menta on guitar and Steve Nistor on drums, who provide the perfect ambiance in each diverse musical scenario they are given. Ron played all other instruments (with his keyboard). Russell engineered and mixed the album.
Following the graphic scheme of Kimono My House and Propaganda, the Hippopotamus album cover on which the Mael brothers ponder the large creature in their pool, bears no mention of the band’s name. Once again the music speaks for itself.
The short and sweet opening intro, ‘Probably Nothing’ is a gorgeous acapella vocal excursion by Russell with minimal piano accompaniment. Strings appear only during the few ending notes. We can all relate to that elusive thought which has slipped from our minds. Our singer cannot recall what he was going to say. He contemplates his forgotten thought’s probable unimportance while his female companion walks away in dread, imagining the worst of what he might have said.
‘Missionary Position’ extolls the virtues of this ‘tried and true’ method. The missionary position is so effective that they had to mention it sixteen times during middle eight! This beautifully melodic, multi-tempo trademark Sparks song with a gorgeous piano arrangement could fit nicely on Indiscreet. Here, it is an album standout. The octave change takes us even higher than we thought we could go. And I won’t mention the wondrous magnificence of Russell’s voice – again. Oh wait, I just did!
‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ continues in the vein of exquisite melodic neoclassical piano and strings within a pop tune. It’s a rollicking ballad with a backbeat. This song sounds beautiful live, especially in the stripped-down acoustic versions that Sparks have recently performed on their promotional tour.
The repeated lines, ‘Live fast and die young’ / ‘I was born to be bad’ do not apply to the singer at all. This dull dreamer is a descendent of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty (previously profiled in ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us’). Although the lyrics quote the song title that Piaf made famous in 1959 ‘Non Je Ne Regrette Rien’ (“No, I do not regret anything”), the singer is actually filled with regret because his dismal life in no way compares to the whirlwind of Edith Piaf’s troubled existence. We can envision him dejectedly wandering the streets in a French film.
A stunning stop-motion video in the style of Tim Burton was created for this song. The incarnation of Piaf (who was famously nicknamed ‘the little sparrow’) appears as a colorful bird of paradise, guiding the path to glory as Ron and Russell (in puppet form) portray the song’s stifled protagonist. Single fallen feathers guide them through the pathways and bars of an empty Paris night. On a mountaintop in an E.T. like moment, Russell reaches out to pet the beautiful creature, which is forlorn as well. The bird liberates them, whisking them away though they are still caged. This flight exemplifies the rapture and melancholy of listening to a Piaf song. The video was animated, directed and designed by BAFTA Cymru nominated animator/puppeteer Joseph Wallace.
‘Scandinavian Design’ is written in admiration of artfully simple and sparse interior design. These minimal furnishings deter a girlfriend from visiting, especially after sleeping overnight on the floor. But due to his utmost appreciation of this modest and somewhat uncomfortable décor, our singer does not care about her discontent. He knows that she’ll be back. Punctuating the lyric, ‘Elegance, simple lines’ is a contrastingly ornate Baroque piano break. This could have been IKEA’s dream theme, but instead it is their nightmare!
‘Giddy Giddy’ – Everyone in an unnamed city revels in this racy staccato tune, punctuated by glockenspiel and uneven beats. I want to go there!
‘What The Hell Is It This Time’ – This guitar driven song with a plodding beat is intended to make us think about the triviality of unimportant things that we pray for. Nobody needs to hear all of our insignificant problems, including the bartender! Russell reprimands us on behalf of God, who probably can’t help us anyway. Your small problem is not HIS problem. So give him a break!
‘Unaware’ echoes and chugs along with a heavy bottom and beautifully distorted droning guitar, somewhat echoing ‘Rock On’ by David Essex. Russell’s voice is heavily ‘treated’ and sounds quite unlike him until the middle eight. This song considers a girl who remains ‘in the dark’ despite the intense media bombardment of useless information that we are all constantly subjected to. It is highly recommended that she remain in this ignorant and untainted condition.
‘Hippopotamus’ – By now we all know the list of objects found in the pool – and they all rhyme with hippopotamus! What a coincidence! Ron wrote the music first. Then the word ‘hippopotamus’ came to mind with the idea of the absurd array of potpourri in the pool. I hope that they have since caught the poolside prankster! Once they do, they can torment him with this song on repeat!
When asked in the October issue of Mojo magazine to analyze the writer based on the lyrics to ‘Hippopotamus’ Russell replies, “I’d say he was out of his mind! But in the best possible sense!”
See the delightful promotional videos made for the album at https://www.youtube.com/user/SparksOfficialVideo
‘Bummer’ – The beat is reminiscent of Sparks’ song ‘Perfume’. A reformed partner in crime who had avowed to a better life by getting married, leaves the other half of the duo all bummed out at his funeral. The singer promises to stay away from his nemesis (the deceased friend’s wife) although she turns him on.
‘I Wish You Were Fun’ – Cole Porter meets the Kinks in this bright and lively tune complete with a chorus of ‘la la las’. Our singer laments a girlfriend who is perfect in every way, except in the fun department.
‘So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?’ – This politically incorrect, yet legitimate question is raised over a sinister sounding melody. We will never know the answer.
‘When You’re A French Director’ – It’s obvious that Ron yearns to be a French director, especially after almost appearing in a Jacques Tati film. In writing this suave little waltz, Ron extolls the perks and virtues of the job that he so much admires, obscurity being one of them. He again employs one of his favorite recurring themes – scorning Hollywood films for lack of feeling, or as he puts it here, ‘les feel’. Leos Carax – an actual French director – appears on vocals and accordion. (See our ‘Other Projects’ section for more news about the upcoming Sparks/Carax film collaboration.)
‘The Amazing Mr. Repeat’ – The beats on this resemble those on ‘Beat The Clock’. There is an intermittent echo on the vocals. “Once more again, oh no!”
‘A Little Bit Of Fun’ – The song begins with the sounds of a fairground. It is simply a mellow rumination about whether this song is fun or not. It is!
‘Life With The Macbeths’ – Russell shares vocals with American soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, who appeared on The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. The murderous and bloody scenarios of the Macbeths would certainly befit a highly popular reality TV show! High-pitched voices soar as they sing about the show’s ratings doing the same. Of course there could never be a second season, since they would kill each other off in the first. This is a reflection on Life with the Lions – one of the first ever reality based shows (on British radio and TV in the 1950s /1960s). John Lennon and Yoko Ono also paid tribute to the show by naming their second album Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions.
The Japanese release of Hippopotamus contains a bonus track, ‘You’ve Earned the Right to be a Dick.’