When Sparks roared back to relevance with 2002‘s Lil’ Beethoven, it was treated as a glorious return to form. How long that form would last was another matter. Was it a one off, or the start of a more sustained period of creative success? 2006’s Hello Young Lovers very much confirmed that the previous album’s success was not an isolated event, and that the Mael Brothers were very much ‘on a roll’. The roll continued with 2008’s Exotic Creatures of the Deep, an album which, although not as head-turning as its two predecessors, still demonstrated that they were stood head and shoulders above any of their contemporaries when it came down to sheer originality. The years after that brought a Musical radio drama which was released in album format, a nicely off-kilter live album, an extensive box set and accompanying compilation, and a well-received collaboration with Sparks-disciples Franz Ferdinand. All of this leaves Hippopotamus as the first ‘standard’ Sparks album for the best part of a decade, and the question is, does the career resurgence that started with Lil’ Beethoven continue?
On first listen to Hippopotamus, my initial answer was no. It’s certainly great to have Sparks back, but the harsh truth is, the album fails to make much impact first time around. But then you listen to it again. And again.
Hippopotamus isn’t an album that screams for attention, but it keeps rewarding the attention lavished upon it. Each time you hear it, something else jumps out at you as being uniquely brilliant, or a song that previously hadn’t made much of an impression on you suddenly reveals itself to be utterly wonderful. After living with for a while, and giving it the requisite repeated listens, Hippopotamus very much establishes itself as the next beguiling page of Sparks’ ongoing sophisticated pop manifesto – one that has continued to refresh itself in a way that has seen them outlast those who could be considered to have similar goals and ambitions.
So why do Sparks endure when so many others fail to stay relevant? Because the Mael brothers are smart enough to know that at its heart, pop music, no matter how sophisticated, should be utterly disposable. They don’t pretend that what they do is high art, or should be taken seriously, however it is this same stance which elevates their music high above those acts who feel that every note that they record is a work of unalloyed genius. Sparks neatly sidestep the whole taking themselves too seriously thing, by sounding like they’re having fun, be it with their insidious arrangements, lyrical conceits, or their song titles (“So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?” has to be one of the most bonkers / genius song titles by any act not called Half Man Half Biscuit for years).
Hippopotamus isn’t without it’s flaws though. Even after repeated plays which have lifted the majority of the album from being frustratingly elusive to beguiling, the final three or four tracks have yet to reveal their brilliance in the same organic way that the rest of the album has. Maybe they will just take a little more time, or maybe they just won’t at all. Only time will tell. Either way, the album will continue to get played and their audience will continue to listen.
Perhaps that is genius of Sparks. By being so amazingly good at what they do and delivering the goods as frequently as they have in the past, their fans are prepared to give them a little more room to do what they do and be who they are, and shouldn’t that be what we all strive for in today’s society?