Album Reviews

Sparks – The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte

(Island) UK release date: 26 May 2023

The brothers Mael are incorporating new sounds and concepts, whilst still sounding exactly like themselves. They’re a band we should all embrace

Sparks - The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte Rather like Mark E Smith stating that he kept The Fall “at arm’s length”, Sparks have never fully revealed themselves. They are arch and artificial, but rarely resort to wielding the smug and clumsy tool of pure irony.

Partly this is because of the music, an improbable triangulation between art rock, bubblegum, and Broadway, which is playground simple and post-doc complex by turns, but it’s also down to the performative vocal delivery: if David Bowie is grandly theatrical, Russell Mael is more like the kid in the school production of King Lear who grins and waves at his mum. Tonal ambiguity is evident from the get-go on this album, it being impossible to decode whether the title track is a snide swipe at the urbane sad-gurl consumerist with Phoebe Bridgers on her AirPods, or a sympathetic lament that life is hard.

A queue of identical weeping women stretching across Caffè Nero would make a good René Magritte painting, emotional and cold simultaneously, and this lightly unnerving atmosphere is reinforced by the surprisingly abrasive glitchtronica loop underpinning the bouncy melody, which could have been lifted from Fennesz, whilst Veronica Lake boasts an undulating digidub pop rhythm which is pitched somewhere between Pole and Yello. Clearly, even after 50 years, Sparks are still expanding their palette, and though this is their first album on Island since the rollicking unglamorous glam of their mid-’70s work, only Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is even slightly resembles that era, although it sounds more like They Might Be Giants, with an ascending vocal line that recalls The Divine Comedy’s Everybody Knows (Except You). Incidentally, the song is about a 22-hour-old baby wanting to return to the womb because the world is rubbish – clearly you can become a sad boi/gurl before leaving the maternity unit.

A strange subject for a pop tune this might be, but other tracks make this micro-vignette feel like a three-volume Wilkie Collins novel. Escalator is tinny suburban Krautpop, and is written of the point of view of a commuter who sees a woman on an escalator then… doesn’t talk to her. It’s hardly Teenage Kicks. A Love Story has someone repeatedly ask someone politely to hold his place in a queue whilst he goes to score some dope for his girlfriend. It’s an unusual clash between middle-aged respectability and youthful hedonism, and a yobbish one-note keyboard part keeps barging into the bubbling synth backing, intimating that that the relationship is not healthy.

There are plenty more pop concepts to be slyly détourned before the album is out: When You Leave is about how much fun it will be when the boring guest goes, an inversion of the “get the party started” trope, making it the opposite of P!nk – presumably L!me Green – and Take Me For A Ride twists the classic rock topics of fast drivin’ and law-breakin’ into harmless middle-class cosplay, expertly illustrated by a disconnected metal guitar smashing into skittish woodwinds direct from an MGM musical.

We Go Dancing is the most gloriously unexpected musical gambit, a chunk of martial minimalism recalling Steve Martland or John Adams in his very fastest machine, which claims Kim Jong Un gets massed ranks to “dance” in formation at will because he’s the world’s best DJ (Run DMZ, if you will). Kim may be an easy, though valid, target for ridicule, but does the track draw comparisons between club music’s exhortations to dance and totalitarian commands? And, if it comes to that, does Gee, That Was Fun intentionally nod toward the valedictory heroics of My Way even as it becomes the first break-up song in history to conclude “Sorry, that didn’t work, but lovely knowing you, bye”? This album asks far more questions than it answers.

Although The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte might not be quite equal joyous recent peak Lil’ Beethoven, it’s impressive that, on their 26th album, Sparks are incorporating new sounds and concepts, whilst still sounding exactly like themselves. They’re a band we should all embrace – at arm’s length, mind.

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More on Sparks
Sparks – The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte
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