Here we are at Sparks’ 20-somethingth album, depending on whether or not you count the radio opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman or the Franz Ferdinand collaboration FFS, or for that matter the redux album Plagarism. When you get to that kind of number, it’s really no longer anything notable to point out. The only interesting thing to note is that even as Ron and Russell enter a point in their lives when many musicians would be doing music by rote, with Sparks you can still see and hear new patterns emerging. I begin this review of Hippopotamus by mentioning the first thing that grabbed my attention, which is a song titled “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?”
I found that to be an damnably cumbersome title, even before I’d heard the song it belongs to. And speaking to the pattern of it, Sparks have been doing this since, I want to say, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins—1994. And while you can say, yes, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974) did exist, that was more of an idiomatic thing. At some point, Sparks started to just make songs that were just random phrases: “I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car,” “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold,” “As I Sit Down to Play The Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral.” And I’ll be damned if Ron and Russell aren’t having a laugh about it, considering there’s also “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song.” But they just ruin the patter of the songs, because a title is one thing but Russell tends to sing them as well, sometimes cramming as many syllables into a basic measure as is humanly possible.
And you know what? Sometimes that makes for good, quirky fun, but “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?” is the last straw. What kind of a line is that? At least “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” had a sort of structure to it, but for “Lincoln” they just machine-gun it. And the worst part? It’s not even a “Talent Is an Asset” or “Here in Heaven”-esque story about Mary Todd Lincoln giving a darkly funny interview after her husband’s assassination. The line has nothing to do with the rest of the song, unless there’s some kind of allusion I’m missing, which I don’t think I am. This is symptomatic of much that is the Sparks of the last 25 years, which is to think up a killer concept and proceed to milk it into utterly enervated submission over 4–7 minutes.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate these songs musically, necessarily. With the Maels back to a format more in line with their classic period, I would say Hippopotamus is possibly the peak of their powers. They haven’t lost their enthusiasm for music, and 45 years of practice will make you a pro at just about anything. Russell took care of his voice—maybe he can’t do exactly the same falsetto he could in ’74, but he sounds not old, and Ron’s twisted persona still looms large, not having lost its edge. I say this because not all the lyrics are duds (“Live fast and die young/Too late for that”) and because he still looks sharp on stage. Sometimes Sparks don’t live up to their name, but Hippopotamus has the spark, and with a seemingly self-conscious effort to keep songs under four minutes, I can get on board. Maybe not with a hippo lurking in the pool—those things are nasty.
Back to Sparks hub