Once in a blue moon a new album is released by a well established act that stands out as the best of their career. It’s a rare thing for sure and it almost invariably only happens to acts that have not previously experienced the level of success that they had so richly deserved (the trappings of success oh so frequently being the nemesis of creativity). Sometimes it comes as a complete surprise (The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips and Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev), other times, you always knew that the act had it in them to create something truly startling, and it was not a case of if, but when they would unleash their career-defining opus (this happened not once, but twice, for XTC with Skylarking and then with Apple Venus Volume 1). No act though has had to wait for their singular world-beating moment longer than Sparks.
From their glam-tinged early work, through their groundbreaking synth-pop streak through the late 70s, early 80s and beyond, the Mael brothers always had a reputation for being an act that older generations found unsettling (often put down to Russell’s falsetto vocals and Ron’s moustache). On the other hand they were almost always considerably more innovative than their peers (if infact Sparks ever had peers). They were smarter than the vast majority of other glam acts, managed to out Roxy Music Roxy Music, and much like Bowie held their nerve while experimenting with different formats throughout the rest of the 70s. The early 80s found them as unheralded synth-pop pioneers who were not averse to actually displaying emotion (I distrust any act (or indeed person) that struggles to convey emotion, hence my lack of regard for the vast majority of synth-heavy acts of the era) and they released one of the most brilliantly titled albums ever (1982’s Whomp That Sucker). However the rest of the decade, and indeed the following one too, were not so kind, as Sparks struggled to find their place in the musical firmament to a chorus of harsh reviews and widespread commercial disregard everywhere outside of France and Germany. Contrast this to the outpouring of sycophantic guff that has risen to greet every new David Bowie album release since the early 90s, regardless of their actual quality.
By the turn of the millennium Sparks were perceived to be washed up. Balls was a disappointing release that was critically mauled and no one would have blamed them if they had called it a day. Instead the Mael brothers knuckled down, re-discovered their Mojo and released the unexpectedly brilliant Lil’ Beethoven to widespread critical and encouraging commercial success. Their next move would be crucial.
Hello Young Lovers opens with ”Dick Around”, which itself opens with a massed choral voice in an operatic style featuring dynamic strings and expands to include some thrillingly gonzoid metal guitar and driving rhythms. It was released as a single at the time, and even in that edited form where it’s impact is significantly reduced, it should have been a monster hit for them, especially here in the UK. Sadly it wasn’t, as the BBC in their wisdom decided to ban its broadcast, as they viewed the title of the song as obscene. “Dick Around” is breathtaking stuff and, despite the fact I am a music fan that focuses on lyrics, there is beauty in their use of repetition, as if Sparks have taken one of the lynchpins of rock and roll and blended it with their own unique vision. It’s a technique they continue to utilise through the rest of Hello Young Lovers and you’d be surprised how effective it is. In lesser hands it would hint at a lack of inspiration, but for the Mael Brothers, it just underlines their creativity – a clever trick that oh so few acts could pull of, regardless of their vintage.
Hello Young Lovers is an album which bulges with pop-nous, great tunes (“(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country”, “Rock, Rock, Rock”, “Here Kitty”), vocal acrobatics and production brilliance. Between all this it belittles sci-fi nerds (“There’s No Such Things As Aliens”), raises an eyebrow at the seemingly infinite advertising/objectifying axis (“Perfume”, which amusingly was later used to soundtrack a perfume advert – one of the great examples of marketing executives missing the point), and ends up with Sparks imagining playing the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral. What Hello Young Lovers does better than anything though is explore the concept of love and relationships in the modern world. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s the best album of ‘relationship songs’ since 69 Love Songs. Make no mistake, this is a brilliant album. It is by turns, clever, entertaining, emotionally honest, funny, dramatic and above all else, impressive. It’s also quite unlike anything that anyone else was doing within the format of popular song at the time. To be honest, I struggle to name an act not called Half Man Half Biscuit (who beyond willful individuality have little, if anything, in common with Sparks) who have managed to release an album as good as Hello Young Lovers since its release.