Sparks - Hippopotamus
Music,  Pop

Sparks – Hippopotamus

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Sparks have come a long way. Longer than most bands, career-wise and trend-wise. Hailing from the early 70s, when rock was hitting hard, metal was burgeoning, punk still was barely on sight and pop music heavily leaned to the rock side, Sparks took the fun side of rock music a la Frank Zappa and morphed into a more accessible format of an hypothetical Brian Eno-David Bowie brainchild. Somehow they invented glam rock, way more funny and less theatrical that what became actually know as it later.

By the end of the decade, they took inspiration from the godfather of disco music, Giorgio Moroder, as an influence over their second phase, a synth-pop one that was close to the Roxy Music’s one and a precursor of what Pet Shop Boys would have done shortly later. Once again, a step ahead of their times.

More recently, they incorporated orchestral elements, hired Franz Ferdinand for the FFS project as a sort of supporting group and overall modernized their sound.

Admittedly, I’m no fan of this modern sound, generally speaking. The eerie, spacious patterns, the singer seems to be a teenager in love kind of sound irritates me and it enrages me that so often is considered “rock”. The rockers of the 70s would have laughed at modern bands singing like a mix of Thom Yorke and Lana Del Rey. Really.

Luckily some managed to have a modern sound that doesn’t immediately sound trite and boring. Daft Punk with Random Access Memories are a fulgid example. Sparks’ Hippopotamus is another one.

I knew Sparks mostly from their initial acts, in the 70s. Being more rock-oriented, they caught my attention and I’ve been playing them, occasionally, with Kimono My House being a personal favourite. I didn’t catch Hippopotamus at first, only this year. As often happens, I’m catching up novelties all the time.

Clearly Sparks of 2017 are way different than Sparks of 1974. Hippopotamus is way more pop and electro oriented, at times even dance. Modern through and through. This in itself is a great accomplishment, the Mael brothers are in their early seventies and managed to produce a freshly modern album. Can we say the same of how many other artists?

Sparks – Hippopotamus track by track

There’s a joyfulness in this album that I didn’t expect. Not from artists as Russell and Ron who have been on the scenes for 50 years, right this year. And not after having traversed so many different genres during their career. Yet here it is, a splendidly joyous album.

Beside the introductory first song, Probably Nothing, with the second, Missionary Position Sparks are already setting the mood for the rest of the album: upbeat, art pop. Not with some sparks, pardon the pun, of nastiness, as the following song Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) sings:

I was born to be bad
I was born to be bad
I was born to be bad
Not this time
Not this time

Regretfully this song didn’t come closer to summer as it is a perfect hit for the season. Nor that I had hope the majors would promote it as it’d deserve, though. Shame on them.


Scandinavian Design is an ironic ode to the omnipresent Ikea and similars these days. Giddy Giddy is as catchy as annoying though. Delightfully annoying, at least. I skip it often. Jumping to another theme in the arc of a song, we get to the fairy-like What The Hell Is It This Time?, which has religious-like lyrics. Considering the theme, the song may sound like a modern gregorian chant. Extremely more enjoyable.

Unaware could be a Lana Del Rey’s song if she stopped abusing of Xanax. Actually Lana, please do. The title track has an upbeat tempo too, with totally weird lyrics that somehow reminded me of Captain Beefheart. He would have sang it with his bluesy tone and with a cacophonic accompanying music.

Bummer brings the tone back to a simpler level of pop, with a tinge of Daft Punk. Just a tinge. Same for the following I Wish You Were Fun. Both are passable and easily forgettable. So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play? is the most 70s Sparks song of the whole album, proof that if they wanted they could still write the same kind of music without any loss in energy and freshness.

When You’re a French Director and The Amazing Mr. Repeat couldn’t be more different. The former being a cadenced ballad while the latter is a disco song in the vein of Pet Shop Boys. The last 2 songs of Sparks’ Hippopotamus have a classical mood that feels like a sad closure for such an uplifting album. Still well written and executed, just out of place.

Hippopotamus is what art-pop is all about

Absolutely. Don’t get confused by some of my not so positive remarks, Sparks’ Hippopotamus is an amazing pop album, with “art” written all over it. Not the Taylor Swift kind of pop, no matter how much the media push her “artistic” performances, this one deserves the word art instead. Clever, funny, mood-changing, quirky, not-giving-a-fuck-of-what-the-latest-trends-are, superior, pure pop.

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Sparks - Hippopotamus
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Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.


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