17 September 2017

Sparks - Hippopotamus

I knew that the Sparks have been going for a while, but I was amazed to find out whilst writing this that they have been together for forty-five years.  That is long that I have been alive and a lot longer than many other bands out there, it is a brilliant feat that they have outlasted so many of the contemporaries and other bands who have come & went after them.  Hippopotamus is their twenty-third studio album and their first since The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, the fantastic FFS (our review of FFS linked here).  Recorded in 2016, it finds the Sparks returning to their traditional sound, but somehow, I feel that they never left that sound.

01 – Probably Nothing

Starting off this album is “Probably Nothing”, a song which is wondering what to say and bemoaning that it is probably best to be forgotten and it is bringing them a feeling of embarrassment.  It is a true introduction track, short and to the point with a sense of irony and charm.  It is a beautiful number, one with all the best part of the Sparks in a one minute, twenty odd seconds piece of beautiful music.

02 – Missionary Position

Sex, sex, sex, but is all about the traditional position, without much adventure to be added to the tale.  I love this song, it is a beautiful ode to being satisfied and to longevity to that tried and tested sexual pose.  As a lot of pop songs talk about sex, it is refreshing to hear a song that does it with those old-school innuendos and a sense of humour.  You only get this sort of song from the Sparks, they have brought their A-game from the start here and it is a joy to these ears.

03 – Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)

The video for “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” is a still-animation where the Sparks are chasing a bird through Paris, but the bird ends up capturing them in a cage and flying away.  It is a moody piece, one that is full of drama and a vocal performance that gives the chills that only Russell Mael can provide.  This is one of those moment where a song hits all the right spots instantly, it is an instant hit from the hands of Ron and Russell, definitely one of the best songs I have heard so far in the second half of 2017.

04 – Scandinavian Design

Not every track is going to be golden on a fifteen-track album, it is an impossible task, even for people like Sparks.  “Scandinavian Design” does not contain that magic touch, it is lacking something, much like the room described in the song itself.  It is not too bad, but it does not gain traction for me and it ends up feeling a bit hollow at the end of each listen.

05 – Giddy Giddy

I love the quirky nature of the Sparks, they can make a song which would sound like a clumsy mess in other hands and you are loving it.  “Giddy Giddy” is a brilliant example of how they do this, it is a song with a silly hook and it has a quirky nature that is undeniable.  It is also an ear worm that will stay in your head for a long time after it has finished, but it is so good that you will not care.

06 – What the Hell Is It This Time?

“What the Hell Is It This Time?” is one of the strongest song on this album, with a song about someone who is constantly testing peoples’ patience’s to their very limits and then some more after that.  It is a slow build in some ways, it is not one that is in any hurry and it sounds as if it could easily be played on for hours on end.  I love it, another perfectly crafted piece from the Brothers Mael.

07 – Unaware

Unaware” is an art pop song about a lady is has no awareness of thing around her, going through life in a fog of her own creation and it is all played out over a dark and atmospheric pop number.  It is a song which leaves the silly, fun nature of the band to the side and it sounds beautiful for being different.  I love that the Sparks can switch their style so easily and make it sound natural, “Unaware” is a great example of how to make a brooding pop song and not sound pretentious.

08 – Hippopotamus

The first single to be released from the album, a minimalist artistic statement about various objects, people and things in a pool with a strange conclusion which resolves nothing.  It is akin to the recent ending in Twin Peaks, it is not designed to give you answers as it is just designed to make you think a little too deeply about some strange lyrics which has been created as they rhyme.  It also reminds me of “Dick Around” from the brilliant Hello Young Lovers, a lost classic from Sparks.  It is a great song, one that will gain important in their back catalogue in the years to come.

09 – Bummer

Once again, Sparks change their style on this album with “Bummer”, creating a moody song that is as catchy as anything else on this album and it stands well on its own two feet.  They have a strange ability to write fantastic chorus section, the verses are works of art and it makes me want to jump around when it is being played. 

10 – I Wish You Were Fun

A song about someone you love to bits, but who is a fun as a fart in a deep-sea diving suit, “I Wish You Were Fun” is another silly moment for this song with an Oriental/London feeling to this song.  The multi-cultured sound is beautiful, the lyrics make me chuckle each time they are on and it is just a silly little catchy song.  What is there not to love here?

11 – So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?

I love the music on “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?”, it just has such a massive hook to the chorus sections that it is impossible to ignore.  The lyrics are a little lost on me at the moment, but sometimes I find out the genius of a Sparks song way after I have started to listen to it.  It would not be a Sparks album without at least one enigma for later, but this is a particularly strong one that is working its way into my heart.

12 – When You’re a French Director

A song about being a French citizen who directs either films or plays, how everything is moody and you are filled with distant for the USA and their fake actors/actresses.  Featuring a guest appearance from French director Leos Carax, it is another OTT song, one that plays on a few stereotypes on both sides of the pond.  It is an OK number, but not one that has the same charm as other Sparks songs.  But like a bad pizza, a bad Sparks song is still pretty decent when compared to other artists.

13 – The Amazing Mr. Repeat

I love this minimalist song, its fast-paced verses and the lack of anything other than the core of the band.  It keeps everything so simple, so tight and it is in and out of the door so quickly that your head is left spinning.

14 – A Little Bit of Fun

The penultimate song of Hippopotamus is called “A Little Bit of Fun” which is not a fun song at all, in fact it is a little bit moody and sarcastic to be honest.  There is a tone to the vocals which is mocking and beautiful, it is one of the reasons I love this band.  They just make some fantastically wonderful songs that should be labelled with warning signs that sarcasm is contained, what a brilliant piece of art!

15 – Life with the MacBeths

Life with the MacBeths” is a dramatic ending to this album, a wonderful duet with Rebecca Sjöwall about the dramas that appear on our TV screens, with a look about and it sounds like a tabloid drama in operatic, pop form.  Once more, Sparks have done something different and it works in their favour.  It might be a bit too strange for some people, but the faithful (and I count myself as one) will lap this up and sing its praises to the heavens.

Hippopotamus is a wonderful album, a fantastic work of art that is worthy of the praise it has been receiving.  It is great to see that this album will be heard by a larger audience who will hopefully listen to some of their recent back catalogue and see what they have missed.  The song writing is of the usual high quality, with only a few tracks which do not quite make the grade.  Because of this, it feels like it could have been trimmed by a couple of tracks (just a couple) and it would have been a smoother album.  But I would rather have too much from this band than too little, they are the sort of act I could listen to for weeks and never get bored.  This album shows them flexing their own muscles properly for the first time in ages, it also shows that they still have it, they can still compete with the best on their own two feet.  Now, can we also have another FFS please, as well as more solo Sparks as well?  I truly hope so, as Hippopotamus is the best art pop album of 2017!

9 out of ten – Almost perfect, almost…...

Top track – Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)

You can purchase Hippopotamus on Amazon here.

You can visit the Sparks website here.

You can follow the activities of the Sparks on Facebook here.

You can stream Hippopotamus on Spotify here.

You can stream Hippopotamus on Dezzer here.

You can stream Hippopotamus on Tidal here.

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