SPARKS: HIPPOPOTAMUS

September 15th, 2017 | Album reviews

SPARKS
Hippopotamus
BMG

This marks the 23rd studio album from the world’s cleverest, most enduring pop duo—the 24th if you count their 2015 “FFS” collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, and you should because it got them back up on billboards and back in front of a younger audience. That rejuvenating boost, along with the previous year’s Kimono My House anniversary celebrations, lands the group at Hippopotamus, which matches the concise songs of FFS to a proper backing band for something of a triumphant return to their 70s mutant glam era. In other words, their recent forays into the past and what-could-be-considered-the-future have clearly informed this record, and fans should be losing their minds over what seems to be an endless reservoir of creativity. The Mael brothers are both nearly senior citizens now, but they don’t sound like it—save their acquired wisdom and world-weary wit.

The album begins with an almost false start: “Probably Nothing” is a stark overture, a tease where Russell taps you on the shoulder repeatedly, only to say nevermind to mark various scenarios of incommunicado defeat. It’s a clear commentary on a world deafened by our own earbuds, and a maddening way to begin a record, but we must squirm a bit before we are allowed to explode. “Missionary Position” is classic 70s Sparks, its build-up epic and buoyant until Russell’s jogging chorus praises the more retro technique of love-making and Ron’s pounding keys almost mimics the rhythm of this relic exercise. “Edith Piaf Said It Better” sweeps in like a melancholic storm front, harkening back to 1994’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins dance-club days, before “Scandinavian Design” skewers the boring décor of Ikea-lifestyle tunnel visions, complete with a hyperactive Muzak breakdown. “Giddy Giddy” is one of the most hilarious songs I have ever heard, an all-out satiric assault on big-city nightlife and disposable happiness brought/bought by modern trends. Basically, Sparks initially make you feel like a fucking idiot—but you’ll feel like an elitist genius just like them once you get the joke.

By this point, we cannot contain ourselves—in fact, the Mael brothers have lost containment when they wake up to find their swimming pool has been taken over by a “Hippopotamus.” The Mael brothers—and only the Mael brothers could do this—successfully find six or so other words that rhyme with the title. One wonders if they see a little bit of themselves in this nearly extinct creature that does whatever the hell it wants? God himself has also lost the ability to contain his Holy Wrath, when he asks “What The Hell Is It This Time?” to the praying masses who won’t pick their battles. “Bummer” is another anthem that sounds like an indictment, using our flagrant slang response to bad news as our own sword for seppuku. “I Wish You Were Fun” is the best song Paul McCartney never wrote, and makes me actually enjoy that whimsical show-tune bounce in ways I was never able to with that particular dinosaur. Sparks loves the contrast between playful and sinister, and so the show turns sadistic when they ask “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln, Aside From That, How Was The Play?” And that is not Russell doing his best French impersonation on “When You’re A French Director”—that is actual French director Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Holy Motors) best known for his themes of love and alienation, perfectly cast in this sepia-toned accordion-mandolin street-busker funeral march. Sparks magnificent 24th album ends with the operatic “Life With The Macbeths,” letting us know that this collection of new songs are but fifteen perfectly plotted acts of revenge from a group that will never die.

—Gabriel Hart