Following up the undisputed best album of your career must be an unenviable task. There was no way that Oranges & Lemons was ever going to be a match for Skylarking, Desire was no Blood on the Tracks, i, as brilliant as it is, will always suffer in comparison to 69 Love Songs, Guerrilla would always reside in the shadow of the superior Radiator and Hawks & Doves never had a chance of matching Rust Never Sleeps. Jethro Tull almost managed to follow up Thick as a Brick with what would have been the greatest double album of the 70s, but those sessions were shelved and we got the interesting and difficult A Passion Play instead.
Imagine how daunted Sparks must have felt as they attempted to follow up the staggeringly brilliant Hello Young Lovers, particularly as they had reached their peak long after even the most optimistic of professional critics had written them off as electro-pop curiosities who dated back to the glam-rock movement. Hello Young Lovers was the album that underlined the fact that there was no one, not even Bowie, could remain so compelling so far into a multi-decade career.
It should be stated straight off the bat that Exotic Creatures of the Deep isn’t as good as Hello Young Lovers. Precious few albums are and its failure to match its predecessor’s dynamic and flow is no indication that it is a bad album. It isn’t. It’s superb actually. Infact it takes the same raw material that Hello Young Lovers was forged from and tries its best to mould it into a great pop album, or at least a pop album by Sparks. It works too. After the luxuriant “Intro”, “Good Morning” is a great way to kick off an album of accessible tunes and pretty much paves the way for what’s coming – an album chock full of beat and string-heavy thinking-persons pop tunes.
When you have an album with titles like “She Got Me Pregnant”, “This is the Renaissance” and “Let the Monkey Drive”, you automatically assume it’s going to be full of weak jokes where the song titles are far superior to the songs themselves. In the case of Exotic Creatures of the Deep, you really couldn’t be more wrong. The whole album is a reminder of what a brilliant pop act Sparks have always been, even during the periods of their career where they seem to have fallen off the taste-makers’ radar. It’s an album where “I Can’t Believe You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song” isn’t even the best song on it (and it is an utterly, utterly, brilliant song). The best song is in fact “Lighten Up Morrissey”, which in all its choral and gonzo-guitar glory is not only the best song of Sparks career, but may very well be the greatest pop song of all time (and certainly the best song which has any relation to Morrissey) and contains the killer line “If Morrissey weren’t so Morrissey-esque, she would overlook all my flaws”. Ladies and Gentlemen, if this is not genius, may I ask you, what is? All of this and the video for it’s pretty good too.
After this peak of gargantuan brilliance, it’s difficult for Exotic Creatures of the Deep to keep up the standard, but “Photoshop”, with it’s tale of a former lover erasing all evidence that you were ever emotionally involved, makes a herculean effort to do so. Sadly the album fizzles out with “Likeable”, one of the album’s lesser tunes and leaving you with the lasting impression that although this is a great album, it just falls short of the jaw-dropping brilliance of Hello Young Lovers. That’s no crime.