Sparks: Hippopotamus (BMG) Review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear



Sep 04, 2017 Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear Bookmark and Share

Fewer and fewer living artists today can claim to be songwriting men-of-all-seasons like brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the creative force behind Sparks. With a career spanning 46 years and almost two dozen genre-bending studio albums, you’d have to turn to the likes of David Bowie to find a musical approach more chameleon-like. Their newest effort,

Hippopotamus, beautifully extends what is arguably the third golden era for the band that began with 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven (their ‘70s glam rock material and ‘80s New Wave run being the first two). They’re probably one of the only active acts that can plausibly claim a fanbase that truly runs across the age spectrum: from an eight-year-old who is drawn in by the fun, accessible melodies to the 20-something art student who appreciates their cultural cachet and oblique references, to the 60-plus grizzled rocker who recognizes their preeminence in the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic.

While Lil’ Beethoven kicked off Sparks’ latest revival with what may arguably have been an overly skewed shift toward the classical, the band has made adjustments in subsequent albums to reintroduce some of their original rock sound and seamlessly blend it with that newfound classical predilection. Hippopotamus is a wonderfully balanced culmination of that effort. The brothers could have stuck to just one of the styles utilized on the album with brilliant results. Instead they bop about from song-to-song mixing and matching rock structures, classical whimsy, and contemporary beats while making it all look effortless. From the standpoint of any artist with a keen ear, the duo’s diverse virtuosity is absolutely enviable.

Hippopotamus bursts with the signature wit and tongue-in-cheek cultural prodding that characterize Sparks’ greatest work. From the high brow subject matter of “Life with the Macbeths” to the lowbrow of “Missionary Position,” Hippopotamus (like all Sparks albums) often functions like a short-story collection, with each song reaching a narrative or thematic conclusion that often leaves the listener amused and/or befuddled, but always the wiser of some little overlooked absurdity in life. It’s a talent that recalls some of America’s greatest wits of the past, such as Dorothy Parker and James Thurber. One can’t help wondering what sort of literary career the band’s primary songwriter, Ron Mael, would have had if there wasn’t a musically inclined bone in his body. All throughout Hippopotamus, with disparate topics like the Lincoln assassination, IKEA furniture, or God’s annoyance with those who serially pray for mundane favors, Sparks show a knack for succinctly exposing quirky Americanisms while getting us all to happily sing along. (

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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