Often it’s more shocking to realize a record is one decade old as opposed to several. Certainly there will be much blogging about the records turning 50 this year – Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, and so on. Not a whole lot of those bloggers were around for those albums original releases, I’m sure. But here’s one I clearly remember, being both the album I anticipated and listened to the most in 2006. There’s something remarkable about that of course, given that Sparks were firmly in that part of their career where you do not typically expect greatness to occur. But there ain’t a whole lot typical about Sparks.
A little overview: I first discovered Sparks sometime around 2004, thanks to the one and only Mark Prindle. The great thing about them is that they have so many likeable traits – they were ahead of their time, had great cover art, were perennially underrated, and they had several albums you could confidently put on a top 50 list. Most importantly, they were funny. Not clever-funny, but actual laugh-out-loud funny, with lyric sheets that were often worth the price of admission by themselves. Keyboardist Ron Mael had a Roland keyboard with the letters rearranged to spell RONALD, and one of their music videos featured him getting pied in the face over and over and over again. I mean, what’s not to like? They had some mainstream success, popping up in some new guise every five years or so. They did glam, they did disco, they did synthpop, they even emulated the Pet Shop Boys as time went on. Through it all they had some classic records and some lousy ones, but for a while it was generally accepted that 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven was their last great one, and for that matter the last time they sounded ahead of the curve at all.
That is, until Li’l Beethoven came along in 2002 – filled with layers upon layers of strings, keyboards, and vocals, it was the rare album that really didn’t sound like anything else at the time -an impressive feat, given that the band seemed to have given up on innovating at all for the past two decades. It was the comeback that nobody expected, and for once the prospect of a new Sparks album was something to get excited about.
If anyone was asking whether or not Sparks could again capture lightning in a bottle, well here’s your answer. The first track from Hello Young Lovers was a winner alright, a tour de force so undeniably incredible that many Sparks fans were immediately questioning whether or not it could be their greatest single. Keep in mind this is from a band that had been around for 35+ years to this point – these kinds of things just don’t happen. But listen to it – hook after hook after hook, an insanely layered arrangement, and an out-of-nowhere Megadeth-style balls-out rock section which may be the heaviest thing they’ve ever done. It’s everything great about Sparks and everything great about “Bohemian Rhapsody”, all rolled into one, and it’s called “Dick Around”. Again – what’s not to like?
The best thing you can say about Hello Young Lovers is that it sounds like Kimono My House meets Li’l Beethoven, with the hard-hitting, hook-filled glam rock of the former, and the intricate, layered arrangements of the latter. Indeed that’s a bit too good to be true – only half the songs really fit that description – but it’s in that same league. It’s a hit-and-miss sort of album, but the high points are really high; closing track “As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral” is perhaps the most epic tune they’ve ever done (like “Dick Around”, it packs a lot into its 7-minute runtime), while “(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country” might just be one of the catchiest. Throw in a couple of classy, multifaceted, single-ready pop tunes (“Perfume”, “Waterproof”) and the album’s a winner already.
The rest is mostly in the vein of Li’l Beethoven; all staccato strings and choral-style vocals, more repetition than songcraft. What they are, however, is ridiculously self-aware – “Rock, Rock, Rock” explicitly references this divide, claiming that “soft passages” will “get you into trouble”; when Russell sings “don’t leave me” he’s speaking directly to you, begging you not to turn the album off. Then there’s “Metaphor”, simply telling you how much chicks dig them, coming from a group that’s been using them for over 35 years. Speaking of metaphors – “Here Kitty” is another one of those “is this about what I think it is?” songs that Sparks love so much (another culprit – “take it out!” on “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?”), though I think in both cases the punchline intentionally never comes.
Therein lies the album’s biggest issue – it’s almost too clever and self-satisfied for its own good. No longer trying to fit in or find their own niche, Hello Young Lovers is the sound of Sparks being Sparks, showing a younger generation everything they’ve learned in the last 35 years. If you’re a fan then most likely you’ll love it – it only took one listen to convince me that this was a Top 5 album for them, along with Kimono My House, Propaganda, No. 1 in Heaven, and Li’l Beethoven. I will point out that Sparks at their best often feel effortless – songs like “Amateur Hour” and “Thanks But No Thanks” are so great because they have the sort of melodies that you want to kick yourself for not coming up with. Hello Young Lovers on the other hand feels labored, with songs that likely went through dozens of iterations and punchups before rounding into their final form, almost to the point where it feels like they’re showing off. But I wholeheartedly give them a pass for this, mostly because the album is amazing, but also out of respect for what they’re doing – almost none of their 70’s contemporaries are putting in half this much effort today. It’s enough to make you wonder what the hell happened to them after Angst in My Pants, their last halfway-decent effort for a long, long time.
It’s not unusual to see a band achieve some sort of critical rehabilitation in the later stages of their career – Bob Dylan comes to mind here – but it’s strange to see a band do it in this way, by out-composing, out-performing, and out-thinking most of the competition. It’s incredible just how vital they would continue to sound over the next decade as well – I don’t think they’ve topped this album since, but it’s still amazing how well their talent has preserved itself over the years. For reference, the band first formed in 1968 (the year of Astral Weeks and Odessey and Oracle) and released their first LP in 1971 (the year of Who’s Next and What’s Going On). I mean – that’s ancient history; multiple generations, maybe even an entire lifetime in the past. And yet, their age seemingly hasn’t affected them a bit – check out last year’s FFS album for proof. Some people just have all the luck.