What a long strange trip it’s been so far for the Brothers Mael. Sparks was formed in 1967 by Ron and Russell Mael. They released their first classic album in 1974 (Kimono My House) and released their most recent classic album in 2017, with a few classics in between.
For the unfortunate souls not initiated into Sparks’ cult of hilarity, the depth and breadth of their daunting catalogue, as well as the silliness and inherent novelty of many of their songs, can be a turn-off. For the initiated, a new Sparks album is an indescribably exciting event.
The Steady Drip, Drip Drip follows Hippopotamus, which was – arguably – Sparks’ best album in at least 30 years, so to say it has a lot to live up to is an understatement. But the good news is that while it’s not better than Hippopotamus, their latest work is just as hilarious, and just as focused.
The album opens with the perversely hymnal All That, which is as refreshing as a cold shower. It also swiftly puts the album in line with the rest of the albums in Sparks’ history. All of the other hallmarks of the greatest Sparks records are here: Russell Mael’s voice has a wider range than Daniel Day-Lewis, and his glass-shattering highs are there in full force on Self-Effacing, one of the highlights of the album. Ron Mael’s gorgeous, layered instrumentation is deeply evocative of their earliest records on One For The Ages, with what seem like sheets of piano notes laid on top of one another.
iPhone buzzes with that anger we all feel when people are ignoring us. It’s one of the more bizarre (read: hilarious) lyrical tangents Russell’s taken in the past few records – with its references to Lincoln, Adam and Mrs Jobs getting pissed off with modern society’s reliance on technology. With its overblown instrumentation, and its leftfield field eccentricities, it could have been on any other of your favourite Sparks records.
Sainthood Is Not In Your Future is a harrowing narrative set to a bubbling synth undercurrents and an almost sprechgesang chant in the vocals. Pacific Standard Time brings the tempo down to ballad territory, putting us right back into mid-’70s territory schmaltz, but runs it through with an electronic feel that harks back to their Giorgio Moroder days. There’s also some Latin flavours (Left Out In The Cold) and pompous silliness (Stravinsky’s Only Hit).
Hopefully – by God, hopefully – this is the year that Sparks have a lasting impact on wider social consciousness. Edgar Wright’s documentary about them is out later this year, and the band themselves have had a hand in the genesis of their own film, Annette.
The irony about Sparks’ career is that if anything, they’ve been too good, for too long. If they had called it a day in 1979, they’d be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Kimono My House would have topped its fair share of ‘Best of the 70s’ lists. As it is, they have endured. David Bowie is dead, Roxy Music have been gone for nearly 40 years, and the bands that were first influenced by Sparks have influenced bands who have influenced bands who have influenced bands… and yet Sparks remain, still here, still making excellent art rock albums like only the originals can. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame surely beckons.