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Everything has gone to hell and barely a day goes by without a feeling that the final wrap-up must be just around the corner. But wait a minute – there is a new Sparks album on the books and that’s not all. “Ron is going to run for president,” they tell David Davies
“We work for at least eight hours every day. There are no weekends, no holidays. It takes a certain mindset to work in this kind of manner of not preparing a lot beforehand and leaving the outcome somewhat uncertain. I do the engineering and Ron sits at the keyboard with his back to me for the entire day. We don’t look at each other; we don’t talk much.”
That’s the Sparks modus operandi in a nutshell, and let’s be honest, you would be disappointed if it was any other way. One listen to new album Hello Young Lovers, moreover, seems to confirm the value of their unflagging work ethic, its ten striking and unusually structured tunes continuing the creative renaissance begun with 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven, the band’s first release for some years that came close to rivalling ‘70s high points like the classic Kimono My House.
If the casual pop fan might still only know the duo for ‘This Town (Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us)’ – a pop classic strong enough to survive even the impact of Justin ‘him out of the Darkness’ Hawkins, but in truth representative of just one aspect of the eclectic Sparks oeuvre – Hello Young Lovers confirms that brothers Ron and Russell Mael are continuing to evolve as songwriters and musical innovators. But it’s clear that their ongoing development would not be possible without simple hard graft – year-in and year-out. “Hello Young Lovers was recorded over a period of two years,” says Russell, the singing half of the duo and, um, the full sum of its exuberance quotient. “When you aren’t certain exactly what you’re after in the studio, but really know what you don’t want something to be, it results in a lot of trial and error. If there was a manifesto for this album, it was simply not to take the easy way out. Don’t compromise, don’t play it safe.”
And this agenda is borne out by an album that, while its ten constituent parts boast striking melodies and stand perfectly well by themselves, boasts an almost suite-like coherence and intensity.
“We wanted to continue exploring musical approaches that we had started with Lil’ Beethoven, but at the same time not retracing our steps,” elaborates Russell. “We like the idea of having an equivalent to the intensity of traditional pop music, but expressed in other ways.”
The band’s long-term reliance on keyboards to establish its wonky soundscapes is indeed refreshingly free of what The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan calls the “keynote artefacts” of popular music. But there’s a new feel this time around, and it probably derives from the album’s wider worldview, typified by ‘(Baby, Baby) Let Me Invade Your Country’, a song unlikely to find its way onto the Presidential iPod any time soon. Russell admits as much: “There is a lyrical aggression to this album.”
While the Mael brothers’ self-contained approach veers towards the monastic, Russell insists that their pop cultural sensors remain as alert as ever. Not that they seem to believe there is much of any true originality out there at present, a galling lack of ambition having infected every part of the scene. “Pop music is keeping its end of the bargain. That’s why there isn’t a lot of new music that is being ‘enjoyed’ these days.”
That sad fact suggests the reception for something as unformulaic as a new Sparks album may be less than overwhelming. But Russell believes that the UK remains more instinctively attuned to the intricacies of the duo’s unorthodox work: “Although the radio has become dreadfully conservative, there is still more tolerance of musical eccentricity in Britain than in the States.”
TM-Online can’t help feeling that James Blunt’s current reign of terror over the nation’s airwaves calls that contention into question, but surely – for the love of God – that can only be temporary. In the meantime, Sparks will be bringing their utterly distinctive, skewed take on pop to selected concert halls around the country. Beyond that, deadpans Russell, they have a rather loftier goal in mind: “Ron is going to run for president.” Just remember where you read it first.
Sparks’ new album, Hello Young Lovers, is released on Feb 6. The single, ‘Dick Around’, is out on Jan 30; both on Gut Recordings. Sparks will be touring in February: 12th (Glasgow, the Academy), 13th (Gateshead, The Sage), 15th (Salford, Lowry), 16th (Leicester, De Montfort Hall), 18th (London, The Forum). For ticketing details, visit www.allsparks.com