Thursday, 29 May 2008

SPARKS: Strange Animal

Age and energy. As I write, Sparks are approximately halfway through their 21-date London engagement at which they are playing every one of their 21 albums, in order, one album per gig. Had I the time, money and energy I would more than willingly have attended all of these performances with the same fuck you finesse which I suspect inspired the Maels to come up with the notion in the first place; a roue's raspberry - look how much we've achieved and marvel at how patiently we assembled this body, absolutely independent of outside considerations.

And the age. Don't forget their ages; both Maels are currently hovering on the border of sixty, and while there are clear hints in the CD booklet photos to Exotic Creatures Of The Deep that it is no longer 1972 - Ron's polite hornrims, Russell's far more sharply drawn and slightly less trusting face and neck - the invention, though now confined to their own Sparks Studio back home in L.A., is autumnal but still vibrant, in an age seeking to deny that age is no longer an issue. No more is pop a parallel to sport - at your peak in your late teens and early twenties, spent or cynical or too rich by 26, out of serious consideration at 30 followed by forty years or so of steady, internalised decline (thirty, a year when most of us haven't even worked out how it all works yet, and for those yet to reach it, that goes for forty too) - but then we also have to remember how the original surviving innovators of the sixties and seventies have for the most part simply (or complexly) continued to proceed forward because no one told them to stop (it's the artists born in 1977 or 1988 of whom we need to be a little careful - what know they of pop history who only pop history know?) and so Sparks have marched ever onward, like an unburdened Queen; the correspondence (musical, lyrical, stylistic) between Queen II and Kimono My House, for instance, was noted at the time, but since Russell was never going to be Freddie, he and Ron have been mostly left alone to prove it all (for) themselves.

Much of the new album suggests a grander Queen in surviving decline; the long-held dissolves between balladic elegance, guitar sockets and pondering harmonies in "The Director Never Yelled 'Cut'" or the elegiac, stabbing harmonies of "Likeable" whose leitmotif scatters its seed throughout the rest of the record. "I've Never Been High" is a gorgeously self-denying lament which would have fitted Mercury like a cummerbund. But the Maels' conceits are both more playable and more deadly serious; they like to experiment with opposites or polar swaps, thus "(You Got Me) Pregnant" which puts Russell in total role reversal ("A wham and bam and thank you sir is all that I would get from her") or the deliberate mis-juxtapositions of "This Is The Renaissance." "I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song" pits its off-the-rack lyrical cliches against furious schaffel which eventually and quite unexpectedly mutates into gentle, piano-led meditation over (or under) which Russell concludes, "I want you/And only you and only you, my love" with no irony whatsoever. "Good Morning" finds Russell nearly unable to communicate with himself, let alone the Russian one-night stand with whom he has surprisingly woken up. "Lighten Up, Morrissey" is the record's catchiest and most straightforward song, a plea from idol to idolator not to set such a stiffly high example such that he can never reproduce it for his own partner.

But "Strange Animal" sums up their undiminished, mischievous vision, an extremely artful song where the drifter (who turns out to be the listener/consumer, although he has recently "been in a fight with some Government men who were high as a kite") wanders into the song as though it were an all-night grocery, every other song being shut ("There are songs that are sealed that will not let you in"). The parties involved in the song itself are nervous but allow him to enter. It's not too long before he starts questioning the song's validity and worth ("The song lacks a heart, comes off overly smart," "You need to be clear and a lot more sincere"). They eventually take umbrage but the listener is having none of it ("When a song lets me in, I can see where it's been - a kind of reversal of the "once it's out, the notes are just circulating in the atmosphere" ethic) and expresses his severe disappointment with the song's worth ("...this song shows no signs of a grander design/Entertainment or art, one should know from the start"). Despondent but intent, he decides to kill them all and start (the song) again, though keeps the chorus - the danger of letting the recipient too close to what the artists might or might not have meant to express, such that they now feel they "own" the song and can rub the artist out of the picture, without true bilateral correspondence.

This is all punctuated by the energetically sad refrain of "What a strange animal we are" while the music shifts confidently from Weill opera through parlour piano to punk thrash and finally to gospel organ - how is this song being constructed even as we're listening to it, and is the act of listening contributing to the musicians' ultimate obliteration? Is it, the Maels ask, really offering nothing more than a convenient mirror? Does a one-way pane of meaningful glass between artist and audience obstruct or guide? Or is the song just so damned sprightly and magical that it doesn't matter and we can comfortably detach ourselves to a warmer second person of listener? Are those spectators in Islington just waiting for them to forget lines, to fumble chord changes, to appear less than perfect, or do they (as I expect they are doing) laugh conspiratorially with the Maels, knowing that living this long and achieving this much is more, much more, than sufficient?