The late career rejuvenation of Sparks is one of the most remarkable things I’ve witnessed in music. After an initial decade of making mostly wonderful and varied records, they hit a rough patch with 1984’s Pulling Rabbits Out Of Hats. The rest of the decade found Ron and Russ releasing records that were stale and painfully out of touch. It was at odds with a band that had always thrived in their own world and were never boring. In 1994, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was a huge improvement (including the classic ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’) but the Pet Shop Boys influence was often a little too obvious. It was Lil’ Beethoven from 2002 when the band truly recaptured what made them so exciting for those first 10 years. Not only had they made a record that stood with their best work, they did it with yet another unique style that was still very much Sparks. Impressively, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures Of The Deep kept the momentum going.
After a one off soundtrack and the acclaimed FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, Sparks are back with their first regular album in nine years. It’s the longest gap between regular studio albums in their 46 year career.
Hippopotamus was announced back in March with the title track acting as the first single. It continues the avant garde orchestral pop started on Lil’ Beethoven and Hello Young Lovers with stabs of strings and an infectious off-kilter rhythm. The second single, ‘What The Hell Is It This Time’ has the same characteristics, with added heavy guitars that were found on previous album highlights, ‘Dick Around’ and ‘Lighten Up, Morrissey’.
The electronic approach featured on some songs suits them well. The bewildering and aptly titled, ‘Giddy’, fuses their layered chamber pop with their electronic side, using a fast bassline and spinning keyboards. The ‘Amazing Mr Repeat’ is their most dance-based song since 2000’s Balls. ‘So Tell Me Miss Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?’ is the best song here with a dramatic hypnotic chorus and pulsing synths in the verse.
As with all their records, humour is in their DNA. ‘Missionary Position’ comes from a similar place as The Divine Comedy at their most playful as Russell repeats, “the tried and true is good enough for me and you, we don’t need anymore”. On the brilliantly joyful, ‘I Wish You Were Fun’ Russell turns an insult into a sweet love song as he sings, “in every other way I find you amazing but one, I wish you were fun”. The airy chorus and slight groove has a nod to ‘Laura’ by Scissor Sisters.
Hippopotamus has 15 songs, and predictably there’s filler. ‘When You’re A French Director’ pushes their novelty side to grating levels, with the use of accordions coming off as a little too much. ‘Unaware’ is reminiscent of the glam of their mid-70s work, but feels stiff and outstays its welcome. ‘Bummer’ is a rehash of the bombastic rock opera of previous albums with a weaker melody and repetition that isn’t as effective. Trimming Hippopotamus down to 10 songs would have accentuated the strength of the album’s successes.
Though Hippopotamus is slightly too long and uneven to rank with their best career triumphs, there are plenty of moments here to remind us why it’s still easy to get excited about a new Sparks release.