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Sparks on “Hippopotamus”

Hollywood Ending

Nov 27, 2017 Issue #62 - Julien Baker Bookmark and Share

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After 45 years and 25 albums, Sparks’ multi-instrumentalist Ron Mael admits that writing songs is no easier now than it was when he started making music in Los Angeles in 1968 with his little brother, Russell. Since then, they’ve been glam rockers (1974’s Kimono My House), synth-pop pioneers (1979’s No. 1 in Heaven), experimental minimalists (2002’s Lil’ Beethoven), and cross-generational collaborators with Franz Ferdinand (2015’s FFS). It has been an unusually long eight years since the last official Sparks full-length release, a 2009 radio drama written for Swedish radio entitled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and the film-obsessed duo has spent much of the ensuing years writing songs on a long-rumored movie musical project. But despite the meticulous, precisely-arranged nature of their music, Mael says that his process is not as carefully controlled as it might seem. When it came time to start planning their return to pop music, Mael did what he always did: he started searching.

“We’ve been working for so long away from the song format,” Mael explains, “and then when we did the collaboration with Franz Ferdinand we became excited again to be working as a band and with three and four-minute songs. The basic idea was ‘Can we come up with a Sparks album, working again in that kind of way, and do it honestly and do what we consider quality songs again?’”

The answer is Hippopotamus, conclusive evidence that Mael hasn’t lost his ear for earworm hooks or droll turns of phrase. While the stylistic shifts can be abrupt, the album, like the entire Sparks oeuvre, is united by a singularly curious perspective, one where complex ideas are distilled to their essence and every song is about something. Hippopotamus is no exception, with Mael writing about God’s frustrations with whiny humans (“What the Hell is it This Time?”), an elegy for a life wasted on convention (“Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)”), and an absurdist tale of a man who finds a series of increasingly bizarre items in his swimming pool (“Hippopotamus”). As with the best songs, any one of them feels like an idea that could be expanded into a larger narrative, should the opportunity arise. In 2018, the Mael brothers will finally realize one such concept.

With filming set to begin early in the year, their first feature-length film, Annette, will go into production. Starring Adam Driver and Michelle Williams, the movie musical will follow the story of a comedian who is left to raise a 2-year-old child after his wife dies. A collaboration with French director Leos Carax, it might well be the culmination of nearly five decades of work. As most of their contemporaries shuffle off into irrelevancy and increasingly unconvincing impersonations of their previous iterations, Sparks are still the band they’ve always been: experimental, eccentric, and unmistakably themselves.

“There’s a certain amount of serious playfulness in what we do, so that allows us to write sincerely,” Mael concludes. “In pop music, we don’t feel like we are slumming it. This is the kind of music that we really love. And while a lot of people who are chronologically where we are are writing reflectively or looking back on life and relationships, we’re able to write in a way that we’ve always written, that’s in the moment and not mellowing out,” he laughs, then adds “as far as we can control that.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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