❉ This is an album that takes from the past and looks to the future.
Hippopotamus is the 23rd album by Sparks (or 24th or 25th depending on how you count them). Most bands struggle with their second or third outing, let alone one in double figures, but there is a vein of confidence in this album, being mined from track one through to track 15 and refusing to pause for breath. Often with an album it can take a few listens to settle down and form a solid opinion, but then you have the ones which yield satisfaction from the off. That sums up my relationship with Hippopotamus down to a tee: it just sits right with me and a few listens in, I already know I won’t be tiring of it any time soon.
We kick things off with Probably Nothing, an ode to forgetting what you were about to say but never mind, it’ll come back to you in the end, only there is the creeping concern that perhaps this memory loss is indicative of something nastier. This feels like very familiar territory for the band, taking an everyday experience and singing about it, and indeed it’s that sense of familiarity as much as anything else which makes this album work so well.
This is an album that takes from the past and looks to the future. It has the staccato piano of Kimono My House with the synth arrangements of No. 1 in Heaven; the lush orchestration of Lil’ Beethoven with the pop sensibilities of Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins; the modernity of FSS and the sense of utter fun of Angst In My Pants.
It’s this last album, their crowning glory of the 1980s, which sprung to mind throughout. This album feels upbeat and clever and silly and knowing in a way I’m not sure any other has managed in quite the same way since. It is at once the same and utterly different.
It all means that Life With The Macbeths makes for a curiously down-sounding conclusion to Hippopotamus, but it has a power behind it (thanks in no small part to the guest vocals from Rebecca Sjöwall) and of course the lyrics to ease any fears, and again it reminded me in that respect of Indiscreet ending with Miss the Start, Miss the End. The past and present meet once again.
Hippopotamus itself meanwhile (the album’s title track) could sit alongside others on Hello Young Lovers with its lyrical sparsity and sense that it’s less a song and more playing a game, and yet its production and instrumentation would make it an oddity there. What The Hell Is It This Time? is the sort of pop-meets-strings song so beloved of Exotic Creatures of the Deep but the subject matter (God is lovely but if you bother Him with inane prayers such as “Please make Arsenal score at the match this weekend” one more time, He’s going to lose His rag) wouldn’t work there. Scandinavian Design and The Amazing Mr. Repeat are sex-infused pop songs with unusual starting positions, whilst The Missionary Position is… well, you can make your own joke here.
‘Joke’ feels apt as this is a funny album, but one which will stand up on repeated listens in a way most humour fails to do, and whilst it may be a variation on an old joke, So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play? is a laugh aloud title for a song.
‘Hippopotamus’, then. Some words just feel inherently right and this word and Sparks go together nicely, as much as ‘propaganda’ and ‘whomp’ ever did. Hippopotamus, then. Some albums just leap out as gold from the off, and this is one of them. They may sing on this album that “Edith Piaf said it better than me”, but I’m not convinced that’s true. On the evidence in front of us, no-one could do it better than Sparks themselves have here.
❉ Sparks – ‘Hippopotamus’ was released September 8 2017 on BMG