If you like your music to have a wry sense of humour and include references to exotic animals, 15th-century Dutch painters, classic automobiles, anonymous literature, and tragic Shakespearean characters, then Sparks have you covered. And that’s just with the eponymous track, Hippopotamus, from their 23rd studio album.
Since emerging from the LA music scene in the early ‘70s, brothers Ron and Russel Mael have acquired a reputation as musical chameleons, restlessly seeking to explore new creative territories for their quirky pop compositions and art-rock sensibilities. After the release of the pop-opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, in 2009 and the duo’s collaboration on FFS with Scottish indie outfit Franz Ferdinand in 2015, the brothers Mael decided that their next album would be full of “three and four-minute pop songs”. And that is precisely what Sparks have delivered on Hippopotamus, a menagerie of delightfully ridiculous pop gems.
It is hard not to picture Sparks offering the audience a sly smile as they open the album with the bittersweet ode to a forgotten thought, Probably Nothing, before espousing on the adequacy of the “retro and a bit passé”, “tried and true” Missionary Position. Édith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) is a remarkably polished affair which is made all the more enjoyable for the juxtaposition of thoroughly contemporary musical and production tropes with the reference to the famous cabaret singer, while So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play? turns the personal tragedy of a Presidential assassination into an infectious pop-rock romp.
While Hippopotamus isn’t a comedy album it is definitely humorous and, with the album running to 55 minutes over fifteen tracks, you may well expect the mood to be feeling a little played out by the end. But it doesn’t. Throughout, Sparks maintain engagement with their memorable melodies and absurd humour, as with Giddy Giddy, making the most of the relatively small sonic palate of vocals, piano, guitar, drums, and a smattering of orchestration. Much like the creative forces behind it, Hippopotamus has remarkable staying power.