❉ Gee, this was fun! Emily Goss is crying tears of joy over the duo’s latest album.
Ever the outsiders, Sparks have long explored the mundanity and beauty of existence, with songs full of humour with a hint of insecurity, and the latest album is no exception…
Ron and Russell Mael, known together as Sparks, are currently attracting a new generation of fans, in part thanks to Edgar Wright’s playful documentary, The Sparks Brothers (2021), which showed there’s a lot more to Sparks than This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us (terrifyingly, fifty years old next year). Since recording as Halfnelson in 1971, Sparks have released over 25 albums, most recently 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, and had hits in every decade.
Their career has moved through many phases, including (but not limited to) art rock, glam, big band swing, electro-disco, new wave and synthpop, taking in collaborations with Todd Rundgren, Les Rita Mitsouko, Tony Visconti, Franz Ferdinand and Giorgio Moroder. Though godfathers of art-pop, they’ve never fitted truly comfortably into any category aside from ‘Sparks’ and latest album, The Girl is Crying Into Her Latte – their first for Island since 1976’s Big Beat – is no exception.
Lyrically original with absurdist touches, the album is musically experimental, with elements of pop, rock, electronica, classical, avant-garde, opera, musical theatre and more besides. Many tracks feel filmic: unsurprisingly, as Sparks are cinephiles and recently wrote a multiple award-winning soundtrack for 2021’s film-musical Annette (with more cinematic creativity ongoing).
Opening with the title track and first single, simple, poetic lyrics interweave with musical layering and repetition for effect. Notes are warped and weirded, with glorious harmonies and throbbing heartbeat drums. The sound-lasagne and experimentation continues through track (and single) 2, Veronica Lake, with bubbling keyboards and lyrics about Veronica Lake’s hairstyle (obviously). Track (and single) three, Nothing Is as Good As They Say It Is, provides a more poptastic, danceable track, told from the perspective of a world-weary 22 hour old baby. It’s catchy and more so with every listen: cheery and bleak in equal measure.
Sparks have long explored the mundanity and beauty of existence, often with a wry wink or dry smile, through songs such as Lawnmower; and repetition is another theme in Sparks’ music with tracks such as My Baby’s Taking Me Home and much of the L’il Beethoven album. As such, it’s unsurprising that repetition is used to create art again with the beautiful simplicity of track four, Escalator, capturing a fleeting moment of romance concisely.
Next up is bouncy, twinkly-keyboarded The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight – a story-song of escape: “Where’s she going, I can only take a guess/I imagine some old island somewhere, decompress/Where she’s far away from all the pain and misery/Hope the island sun don’t fade her priceless imagery.”
Track six, You Were Meant For Me, is melodic and romantic, again celebrating life’s mundane magic. Next up, Not That Well-Defined has soaring strings and more pulsing heartbeat drums, with philosophical lyrics. “Can a person say that they exist/When so far they’ve managed to resist/Any definition, any key/You are like a fog dealt from the sea/I’m at a loss”.
Despite its title We Go Dancing, track eight is not easily danceable, with disharmony and time-signature shenanigans bringing to mind sci-art sound experimentation more than the dancefloor: perhaps a knowing contrast to 1986 single Music That You Can Dance To (a defiant poppy tune written after a record producer asked Sparks for a song people could dance to). We Go Dancing bears repeated listens, each offering something new, though I’m still not certain what.
Sparks songs are full of humour with a hint of insecurity, ever the outsiders. Track nine, When You Leave brilliantly evokes this: a lyrical anxiety-litany about all the fun that will start ‘when you leave’, with the gloriously subversive refrain of “I’m gonna stay/Just to annoy them/I’m gonna stay/Just to toy with them/I’m gonna stay/They can’t push me around/I’m gonna stay/Stay all the way” It made me smile and cheer ‘you’ on. Again, lush strings complement the keyboards.
Take Me For A Ride is another filmic, experimental song, spanning genres from rock to classical, offering an immersive soundscape with a comic reveal in the final verse. It’s Sunny Today, is similarly cinematic, gently uplifting and evocative, offering a ray of light through dark clouds in musical form: keyboard, strings and vocals intertwine to create joy.
A Love Story is set in the unconventional location of a queue, with the repeated lyric of “Hold my place in the queue, you’re so kind. Gotta buy some drugs for this girlfriend of mine,” ending with, “Ain’t my thing, it’s her thing.” Glad that’s cleared up…
It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way is another melodic number, encouraging individuality: “They always said you must stay inside the lines/Staying easily defined/Or you’re wasting all your time/It doesn’t have to be that way, OK.” Couldn’t agree more.
Final track, Gee, That Was Fun, starts contrarily gloomy and poignant, before bursting into hope and heartbreak: an alternative love song, of a kind? And gee, it was fun! Ron and Russell Mael say this album is “as bold and uncompromising as anything we did back then or, for that matter, anytime throughout our career.” And it is. Sparks are again artists beyond music, pushing form and convention. The Girl is Crying Into Her Latte shows range, creativity, and that you can never predict what Sparks will do next – except add joy, playfulness and inspirational art to the world.
❉ Sparks: ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’ is released 26 May 2023 on Island on LP, Clear LP, Picture Disc, CD and Cassette. PRE-ORDER/PRE-SAVE.
❉ Emily Goss is an author, editor and a judge for this year’s audiobook categories in the British Book Awards, who spent a decade or two working in the music industry and radio. She writes about eco-art, crafting and sustainability at GrowEatGift.com, is founding editor of Ciadish magazine for chronically ill and disabled (CIAD) writers and readers who want to diversify their bookshelves, and is currently querying a novel about women in the Arts and Crafts movement.
Thanks for this lovely review. For more information on Sparks, you might want to check out the FanMael website.