Ron and Russell Mael are both approaching 70 but they prove they’ve still got a lot to offer with Hippopotamus. This record comes off the back of 2015’s collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, FFS, which may well be the best thing either band has put their name to. It’s the first Sparks studio album in eight years and the 23rd of their near-50 year career. They previewed some of these tunes earlier this year at the BBC 6music Festival in Glasgow where they shared the Friday night with Future Islands and Goldfrapp, with their uniformed band included members of Mini Mansions and Queens Of The Stone Age.
Hippopotamus is a collection of tunes that are as idiosyncratically witty and arch as you would expect from the band that has given songs like ‘When Will I Get To Sing My Way?’, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, and ‘The No. 1 Song In Heaven’. FFS producer John Congleton (David Byrne, St. Vincent, Amanda Palmer) has once again overseen the recording.
‘Probably Nothing’ starts proceedings like the opening number of a musical; a theatrical overture like Scott Walker doing Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Missionary Position’ is a slice of prime Bowie: a piano lead mini epic in the vein of ‘Drive- In Saturday’, while ‘Scandinavian Design’ is a Beatles-y takedown of the hygge lifestyle that was briefly in vogue. ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’ is the exasperated cry of an overburdened deity:
“My god is great//My god is good//But show some restraint//If you’re feeling faint//Go call on a saint.” It’s pulsating and anthemic.
Russell Mael’s falsetto may not reach the heights of yore but the syncopated melodies of the title track are hypnotic and ostentatiously knowing. The mysterious titular water-dwelling mammal is joined by Titus Andronicus, a book by anonymous, and a painting by Hieronymous (Bosch) in the Mael’s bizarre tableau. ‘I Wish You Were Fun’ is another White Album-inspired tune: a seaside stomp with a deceptively cheery melody. ‘When You're A French Director’ is a sleazy waltz-time fantasy, and ‘The Amazing Mr. Repeat’ is a high energy tune that The Killers would kill for.
Not to be morbid but, we won’t have Sparks forever. In March, we said of them; “Nearly fifty years into their career, they are no less striking and individual...While other, younger bands are content to coast on past glories, Sparks remain vital, their music modern and forward looking”, and that remains true on Hippopotamus. If you don’t know Sparks but are a fan of Alt-J, Everything Everything, or Amanda Palmer, then come see where they got their inspiration. If you’re already a fan, then Hippopotamus is as good as they have ever been.
Hippopotamus is available from iTunes.