Review: Sparks’ 26th Release Keeps The Innovative, Bizarre, Creative, and Skewed Faith

The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

How is this possible? Sparks, the offbeat outfit of brothers Ron and Russell Mael that began in 1971, is not only still cranking out wonderfully warped albums over five decades later, but sound as innovative, brash, funny, and generally creative, arguably more so, as when they started.

Release number 26 arrives after the well-received The Sparks Brothers (2021) documentary, similarly feted 2020 A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (a highlight in their ongoing series of twisted, crazy quilt releases), and wildly successful 2022 tour that solidified the group’s larger-than-cult status. This collection, somewhat unexpectedly, returns the twosome to the Island label where Sparks first achieved acclaim.

To say it sounds like another great Sparks set might be damning it with faint praise. But how keyboard playing Ron—who composes the music and lyrics for another batch of cunning, bizarre, theatrical, and above all humorously skewed songs that never go where you think they might—can stay at the top of his game after this long in the art/pop trenches is inspirational. There aren’t many other songwriters in Sparks’ genre, whatever that might be, creating their finest work 50 years on. There may not be any.

Those new to the Sparks experience need to look no further than this set’s title for an idea of Maels’ mindset. Add songs such as “Nothing Is as Good as They Say It Is” and “The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight” to grasp how Ron looks at the world from a viewpoint most others don’t, or can’t.

Musically, there aren’t major changes. The Maels’ combination of theatre, dance, prog, electronic, and yeah, pop continues to find fresh ways to entertain. Some songs have choruses, some don’t, most zig when you expect them to zag and every one of them sounds like well, Sparks.

No singer is like Russell, nor could most pull off the alternately soaring and stoic vocals that make Ron’s lyrics land with such a dryly flippant punch. All address offbeat, random topics like 1940s sex symbol Veronica Lake’s hair, noticing a girl on the escalator Russell is attracted to but is unsure of asking out (She’s going up while I’m going down), or the slow ballad about a marriage that has outlasted its better days on “Gee, That Was Fun,” (You were a bit too good for me/Didn’t take long ‘til you agreed) as the song’s time signature changes in the middle, then back again. Those who listen to “When You Leave”—where Russell sings about all the exciting things planning to happen at a party when he exits… then stays just to annoy his hosts—without busting out in laughter or at least a goofy smile, isn’t on Sparks’ inimitable wavelength. 

Six of 14 tracks add a full band enhancing Ron’s multiple, overdubbed, mostly electronic keyboards which keeps the sound fresh. But as usual, it’s the quirky songs and artful, casual, sometimes caffeinated presentation that makes Sparks’ music so refreshing in its own bespoke way.

Fifty more years? Sparks are ready. Are we?    

Photo by Munachi Osegbu

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