Listening to Sparks is not at all unlike seeing a hippopotamus at the zoo. Each entity is big, kind of weird looking, even weirder sounding, and yet likable, in a way that your conscious mind might not immediately be able to process. While it’s true this comparison may never have crossed your humble reviewer’s mind had the outfit’s 23rd studio album not been titled Hippopotamus, it feels appropriate anyway.
From chord one the brothers set their tone. Ron Mael’s piano plunks and Russel’s voice slinks forth from the nose. The listener knows right away that this will be a strange ride, doubly so if they have any prior knowledge of Sparks’ oddball career.
To that end, there is really no artist around now – nor any who have coincided with the duo’s near 50-year career – who commit to their strangeness in quite the same way that Sparks do. (Which other pop singer than Russel Mael can you imagine effortlessly delivering the rapid-fire chorus of “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?”)
At its best, Hippopotamus balances its idiosyncrasies with clever, hooky arrangements. Sparks display instincts as sharp as ever on highlight tracks like the coy “Édith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” and wistful “I Wish You Were Fun.” It becomes sort of breathtaking at times to witness this sonic collage of synths, Shakespeare references (rhyming “Titus Andronicus” with “hippopotamus”), multilingualism, and other brazenly bizarre choices. At its most engrossing, the album leads the listener to believe that the brothers might pull any imaginable element from their sleeves at a moment’s notice.
But it’s worth noting it usually only ever seems that way. For the most part, once a song’s dynamics are introduced, however strange they may be, they become the invariable backbone of the next few minutes. Sure, this is the general conceit around which pop music exists, but in the case of Hippopotamus, it leaves repeated listens with the impression that none of these songs is as wild or unpredictable as they may have seemed at first. Once one becomes acclimated to the wildness of Russel’s persona and the occasional flutter of an unexpected synth tone, the sonic vocabulary loses some of its bite.
This makes for an album that vacillates between strange-but-entertaining and, well, just annoying. Such tracks as “Missionary Position” feel thin and hokey, and it’s not likely you’ll find a more irritating song this year than “Giddy Giddy.” It’s hard, when listening to Hippopotamus and really the greater Sparks discography, to avoid the more than occasional territory of weirdness for the sake of weirdness—wackiness that gets stuck up inside of itself and falls short of making any greater point.
Yes, Sparks is not quite unlike a hippopotamus at the zoo. Two weird and gaudy beasts worth experiencing. What becomes clear, though, is that the pens within which the creatures reside – the physical confines of a hippopotamus’s zoo; the sonic confines of Hippopotamus’s self-aware silliness – will not suit all palates.