Sparks – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
After spending half a century pursuing and executing some of the most outlandish and original ideas ever concocted in the history of American popular music, Sparks ought to have run out of inspiration or energy by now. Surely a following as fervent and loyal as theirs would forgive Ron and Russell Mael if they decided to phone it in. As two distinguished septuagenarians who’ve already given us pleasures as distinct and indelible as “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, “Amateur Hour” and “The No 1 Song In Heaven”, they earned the right to coast long before the arrival of latter-day masterworks like Hello Young Lovers, their delectably wry 2006 concept album about modern romance, and The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, the genre-hopping musical fantasia they crafted in 2009 for Swedish radio.
Yet here are Sparks with another new album, the 24th since 1971’s Halfnelson. What’s more, the 14 new songs on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip are filled to the brim with the usual abundance of trademark lyrical zingers, tenacious earworm melodies and stylistic zigzags. It’s enough to make most of us feel irredeemably lazy and dull-witted even without the news that the new album will soon be followed by the big-screen musical Annette, a long-in-the-works collaboration with French director Leos Carax. The film stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard singing songs the Maels originally wrote for a Sparks album before Carax hatched a more ambitious plan. (Edgar Wright, another filmmaker fan, is also finishing his Sparks documentary, full of interviews and concert footage shot over the last two years.)
Given the brothers’ own ability to remain so productive in their eighth decade on Earth, you’d think they’d have a little more respect for Igor Stravinsky, who sustained his career until he was almost 90. Instead, the Russian composer and conductor serves as one of the album’s many targets of mockery in “Stravinsky’s Only Hit”, a semi-affectionate pisstake that presents the classical music giant as a hard-partying yet increasingly embittered celebrity. As is often the case for a Sparks song, the comedic conceit is about eight layers thick (it has something to do with the orchestral hit in The Firebird that’s now perpetually reused in pop and hip-hop). But getting the whole of the joke is not essential to one’s enjoyment of the cod-grandeur of Ron Mael’s arrangement or Russell’s delivery of couplets like “All he misses is a midnight massage/Platinum record, probably in his garage”.
Another highlight of A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip expresses a kinder take on the subject of how best to spend one’s twilight years. Opening track “All That” is a sweet and stately tribute to a lifelong love that has weathered “all the smiles and all the frowns and all the ups and all the downs/And all the fears that you would soon be gone”. There’s a similar quality of effervescence in “Onomato Pia”, a delightful mini-operetta about an Italian diva with “a real communication flair”.
But on the whole, the songs here express a darker view of the ambitions, desires and self-delusions that so often comprise human existence. The Maels are especially merciless when it comes to the subjects of their character studies in “Lawnmower”, which skewers a myopic suburbanite who cares about nothing but his lawn, and “One For The Ages”, a vignette about a “real quiet guy from accountancy” who labours every night on a novel that’s doomed to fail. Feelings of dread and panic permeate “I’m Toast” and “The Existential Threat”, a song whose high state of agitation is further intensified by its quasi-klezmer trappings. Meanwhile, irritation is the operative mode in “iPhone”, a cri de coeur about the infuriating effects of modern tech that includes an imagined scene of Abraham Lincoln interrupting the Gettysburg Address to tell his audience to “put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me!”. True to form, Russell sings the line with all the mellifluousness it probably doesn’t deserve.
As if they’d left any remaining doubts about how rubbish modern life can be, Sparks close A Steady Drip… with “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World”, a defence on behalf of our polluted planet that’s comes complete with gently strummed guitars and the celestial sound of a children’s choir. “So much now needs addressing,” Russell laments. “So much now is depressing.”
What with the historical moment into which A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip inadvertently enters, lyrics that may have been written with the Maels’ customary degree of cheek may cut unexpectedly deep. Yet the warmth, wit and bravado with which they deliver even the harshest sentiments are enduring qualities that remain keenly appreciated, especially by those of us who suspect this world did little to deserve Sparks in the first place.