In 1974, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,’ sounded like a glam rock single skewed through the sensibilities of art-school drop-outs who write fan-mail to movie-star dogs and M. Jacques Tati.
In 1979, ‘The No. 1 Song In Heaven’ sounded like a disco 12″ skewed through the sensibilities of the sorts of young men who attend conventions not directly connected with their occupation.
In 1995, ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way?’ sounded like an airy Balearic dance track skewed through the sensibilities of the kind of people who have hits in Germany.
Whether they have intended to or not, Sparks have always sounded of the era. A common thread of Maelian eccentricity runs through each and everything they do (arch narrative arcs on trivial matters), but it is only because they have been themselves over such an extensive period that they falsely foster an idea of eclecticism. Sparks and the contemporary music scene run as two clocks with their second hands set moments apart: they are not entirely in sync, but each shows exactly the same time.
While others argue over art holding a mirror up to life, Sparks have art turning the spyglass back on itself. However, the reflection is never tainted with malice or scorn. They never showed glam as indulgent and self-destructive nor disco as tedious and banal. They never commented that new wave lacked substance and techno lacked tunes. In music, if not life, they always saw the good in things. It was their only responsibility to avoid all seriousness and suggest, to those who did not know already, that humour and wit can sit comfortably in any circumstance. Modern music, though, is no laughing matter.
With 2002’s ‘Lil’ Beethoven’ and now ‘Hello Young Lovers,’ Sparks gave up their coquettish relationship with the mainstream. No longer was chart music a thing to be played with lovingly. Its seeming lack of substance and adventure (it was everything Sparks had done before) was to be ignored wholly on the avant-classical, hip-hop hybrid, ‘Lil’ Beethoven,’ but on ‘Hello Young Lovers’ it is something to be openly despised, scorned and torn apart.
Sparks heap their disapproval upon contemporary music (which we can describe as being both a con and purely temporary) firstly by excluding every reference point to today’s cool/angry/art rock moral majority and secondly by heralding change at every bar. Modern music (or, at least, that which has leaked into Sparks’ vacuum) sticks its spurred heels in, refusing to be original, refusing to alter, refusing to deviate from any given formula. So, with appalling arrogance and to show up all the young upstarts, the Brothers Mael take a single vocal snippet or brief idea (lead-off single ‘Dick Around’ for example) and shift and shuffle beneath it every chord, tempo and timbre change conceivable. In true modernist style, ‘Dick Around’ contains within itself every Sparks tune that has ever gone before it, if not a whole L’Historie de Musique de Pop. “And if we can do this with one bar,” they seem to say, “just imagine what we can do with a whole song.” If they had one.
Actually, they do. That song is ‘As I Sat Down To Play The Organ At Notre Dame Cathedral,’ a closer composed of just enough separate components to keep track of (that is a great many less than in ‘Fingertips’ by They Might Be Giants). They are all put together with sufficient care that the joins don’t show. Because there are no joins at all.
However, for an album that bristles with such violence in its principles, it sounds, as all Sparks albums do, very pleasant. The attack is not in the music itself, but in how the music is approached, arranged and produced. It is the choice of music they have decided to write over that which they have decided against that constitutes their reprisal. The “auditory assault” the press release promises lies behind the sounds rather than within.
Even in the songwriting itself, Mr Ron Mael seems to have refrained from any cheap slights in the style of ‘What Are All These Bands So Angry About?’ The closest one would come is if one avoided the obvious political reading of ‘(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?’ and instead saw it as a proposed reclamation of chart territory (of course, chart territory is still territory where Mr Russell Mael’s tired old question, “Who’s your favourite Beatle?”, can spur debate late into the night). But then it could also be Ron’s overdue retort to journalists who ask him why he invaded Poland.
When Sparks, intentionally or inadvertently, sounded like everyone else, it was secondary to the fact that they sounded like Sparks. And now, when they try to sound like no one else, they still sound like Sparks. The delicious ‘Metaphor,’ prinked ‘Waterproof’ and Swingle Singers-like ‘Here Kitty’ cannot hide their Sparks-ness behind unexpected string glissandos and obtrusive rock guitars. Such wild oscillations between styles will blur into one constant noise, leaving only a common thread of Maelian eccentricity. After twenty albums, one can give up all hope of being original; by that point your persona has grown too big to be concealed by mere ideas. No matter how far you divorce yourself from contemporary music, you will always be married to yourself.