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Sparks - Hippopotamus (Album Review)

Monday, 11 September 2017 Written by Jacob Brookman

Sparks are an acquired taste. Joyously idiosyncratic and defiantly throwback, their 23rd album, ‘Hippopotamus’, showcases the arty quirkiness that long-time fans love while driving home their fundamental creative philosophy: classically informed songwriting infused with a camp, fun intellectualism.

The title track and album centrepiece drives this message home. It opens with a jagged vocal motif above synth strings: “There’s a hippopotamus in my pool [...] how did it get there? I don’t know.” The song then takes us through a melange of lyrical ideas that riff on that initial multiple rhyme: ‘Hieronymus’ ‘Titus Andronicus’, ‘a woman with an abacus’.

The track is one of the best examples of Sparks’ distinctive compositional approach. It has clearly been built from the joy of the word ‘hippopotamus’, and the scattergun approach to messaging is not an afterthought. It is the very essence of the song.

They are a group whose lyrics are often pointedly throwaway - perhaps to undermine a frequently highbrow musicality that recalls Abba or, more accurately, Bach and Pachelbel.

Actually, the creative influences on ‘Hippopotamus’ appear to come as much from outside music as within. The leftfield duality recalls conceptual artists Gilbert & George, while the surrealist humour always seems at one remove from Pirandello’s Theatre of the Absurd. This is rendered most immediately on a track titled So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?.

Another that demonstrates this is Missionary Position, which opens with the glorious stanza: “It’s a little retro and a bit passé / but you know you make her feel a-okay / and she feels alright, the stars are bright, the missionary position!”. It is a good example of the challenge in humorous songwriting. Straight-up gags wouldn’t work on repeat listens, so humour is mined from assertive philosophical posturing delivered with that loony Russell Mael falsetto.

The biggest challenge with ‘Hippopotamus’ (as with Sparks generally) is that their music is so varied and eccentric that it requires an unusual complaisance in the listener. It requires a willingness to try anything and appreciate Sparks as curators as much as artists. It’s like going to one of those ungodly world cuisine buffets and being offered every food under the sun when you really just wanted Italian.

Sparks Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon September 18 2017 - NORWICH Waterfront
Tue September 19 2017 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Boiler Shop
Wed September 20 2017 - EDINBURGH Queens Hall
Fri September 22 2017 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
Sat September 23 2017 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Sun September 24 2017 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
Tue September 26 2017 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Wed September 27 2017 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
Thu September 28 2017 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

Click here to compare & buy Sparks Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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