“If this were the Seine, we’d be very suave / But it’s just the rain washing down the boulevard”.
Why can’t my life be like it is in the movies? Why can’t this non-descript street in my non-descript town carry all that romantic flow of the Seine? Why must my sadness be so overbearing ugly? Why can’t I sulk with all effortless, monumental swagger of a Heston, Lancaster or Bogart? It seems that I, as long as I’m alive, cannot forego those times when I wish I was someone else, in another place, from a different time, and ashamed that I, cripplingly, cannot be anything more than what I’ll only ever be.
These lyrics, from “Thank God it’s not Christmas” were released over four decades ago on Sparks’ breakthrough album Kimono My House. (In that song, note the jabbing, skating guitar riff and its premonition of a thousand noughties’ guitar riffs.) Hippopotamus, their 24th album, and the first conventional pop record by Sparks in nearly a decade, entered high in the UK album charts – an unknown feat for the group since their initial mid-70s blossoming.
Indeed, the veteran, Californian duo of Sparks AKA brothers Ron and Russell Mael are undergoing a bit of a rival – performing on TV life on the One Show and Front Row has helped. Their fruitful, 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand too played no small part in re-energising Sparks and opening them up to a new, younger audience.
On the album’s opener proper, “Missionary Position”, Sparks suggest nothing of the loss of a youthful exuberance, plying a theme on which all their most successful songs are based: sex. It’s a testament to Sparks’ art that a song ostensibly about nothing more than a page from the Kama Sutra can so honestly and jubilantly celebrate ordinariness, express a defiant, “neo-classicist”, contentment with what we have rather than frustration at what we haven’t – “the tried and true is good enough for me and you.”
Elsewhere, the protagonists aren’t so lucky, recalling that Larkinesque archetype by the would-be Seine. The bitter voice of “Edith Piath (Said it Better than Me)” cannot escape his regret –“Live fast and die young? Too late for that”. In “I Wish You Were Fun”, the heart-breaking lyric confesses –“I find you amazing in every way except one: I wish you were fun.”
Hippopotamus is at its most successful when the songs suspend on a quintessentially Sparks tension between sophistication and silliness, where attractive, surface-level gimmicky subject matter – Ikea Furniture (“Scandinavian Design”) or God being overworked by too many prayers (“What the Hell Is It this Time”) – clothe a vulnerable body fleshed in sincere emotion which, on Hippopotamus, more so than on any other Sparks album to date, tugs at the deeper strings of sadness. Perhaps this is a sign of Mael Brothers’ growing age – Ron, who writes the songs, is 72, while Russell, who sings them, has just turned 69.
While the album marks no atrophy in Ron’s mischievous imagination and wit or exquisite skills in song-writing arrangement, Hippopotamus can veer uncomfortably close to a shallow, quick-fix novelty. The title track, for example, is thrilling on the first listen-wondering what is going to appear next in Ron’s pool recalls all the exciting anticipation of what The Very Hungry Caterpillar is going to eat on Thursday (Four strawberries, it turns out) – but a lack of depth is uncovered after only a few listens.
Even with this in mind, to hear men with such a wealth of experience and success behind them continuing to challenge and innovate keeps the future looking bright, confirming (almost) that old adage that, in the end, “what will survive of us is love.”