Sparks were in a weird position in the mid 90s. Once one of the most subversively inspirational acts, by the time Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins was released, The Mael Brothers has been overtaken both commercially and artistically by some of the very acts that they had inspired, most obviously Pet Shop Boys. From it’s sphincter tighteningly bad title, down to it’s done on QuarkExpress in under an hour artwork, there was a distinct sense that Sparks were running on fumes with Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins.
Things don’t start well with “Gratuitous Sax”, but things do pick up with “When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”?”, easily one of the strongest Sparks songs for years, and a number which saw them enjoying some unexpected chart action in Germany. Sure, they sounded a little closer to the acts that cited them as an inspiration, but ultimately “When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”?” was an enjoyable serving of synth pop, and was a handy reminder that Ron Mael always knew his way around a brilliant pop tune.
Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins continues its promise with “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing”, which although not as strong as “When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”?”, is still a serviceable synth pop offering, as is “Frankly Scarlet, I Don’t Give a Damn”. Then just when Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins seems to promise a return to form for Sparks, it slumps with a clutch of tunes which are effectively little more than filler. It’s a shame, but if you were an act desperately clinging on in the hope of career rejuvenation, wouldn’t you front-load your latest album?
“Now That I Own the BBC” is as good as its title suggests, and lifts Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins from its midway slump, but the return to pop brilliance is temporary, and along with “The Ghost of Liberace”, is one of the few high points in the second half of the album.
The success of “When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”?” ensured that Sparks would concentrate their energies on establishing a firmer foothold in the Central European market for the rest of the decade, by way of Plagiarism, an album of reworkings of earlier material. With crushing inevitability, the gambit failed, and by 2000’s Balls, Sparks sounded almost devoid of their once customary brilliance outside of that album’s title track.
It was a huge surprise then when the Mael Brothers returned in 2002 with Lil’ Beethoven, which saw the Sparks reinvented and rejuvenated, and starting a sequence of utterly brilliant albums which continues to this day.
Recorded at a time when things were not going so well for Sparks, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins was by no means the nadir of their career, but it was a reminder that even the best of us need a change of scene from time to time.