...relax, the Mael brothers have been doing tongue-in-cheek pop with an IQ for long...
Chris Jones 2002
Sometimes publicity just isn't enough. Sometimes it's up to YOU, gentle reader, to go forth and tell the world what it is missing. This is definitely one of those times. Lil' Beethoven comes at you from such an oblique angle that you may be scared. Quite simply it's orchestral, huge and daunting. But relax, the Mael brothers have been doing tongue-in-cheek pop with an IQ for long enough to know how to turn such a newapproach into a joyous ride around modern life's quirkier corners.
The studio is the instrument here. 'Songs' are constructed from layers of voices, strings, tympani and piano. Verses and choruses are reduced to repetitive wisecracks. But irony hides a stronger purpose. From the opening track, 'The Rhythm Thief' a manifesto of new musical syntax is laid out. Ron's menacing rasp as the titular thief announces the band's intentions to shrug off dance as their chosen weapon of mischief. 'Lights out Ibiza', indeed. 'How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?' and 'What Are All These Bands So Angry About?' both rely on the massed Russells to deliver the one-liners. 'I Married Myself' is where it all gets a bit tricky. A charming song suddenly emerges with the sweetest lyrics ever devoted to narcissism: 'I'm very happy together. Long, long walks on the beach. Lovely times...'
Sparks always longed (and succeeded) to cross the art/pop boundary but their innate weirdness could also be a handicap. Make no mistake; this album wants to sell by the shed-load; its just us that live in the wrong parallel universe. After the new age positive-thinking of 'Ride 'Em Cowboy' comes the sucker punch. 'My Baby's Taking Me Home' is half vaudeville - half trance. The simple phrase attains awesome levels of significance when pitched against Ron's swirling series of crescendos. The banality of repetition is like Steve Reich in a fever dream. It's also totally meaningless.
Such is the strange profundity of this record. It bears no comparisons, even with other incarnations of Sparks themselves. 'Your Call's Very Important To Us. Please Hold' manages to say something about the ambiguity of relationships and commerce - with about three sentences. It's mechanised but also very human. 'Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls' again lures you in with a lovely melody, only to kick you in the teeth with its guitar-flamed bile ('It ain't done with smoke and mirrors'). There's just time for more vaudeville with 'Suburban Homeboy' ('with my suburban ho' right by my side!'). It's just plain funny.
History teaches us that such other-worldliness usually only ends up in the collections of fans and bearded guys. But while even fans may long for another 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us', after over 25 years Sparks are still mixing it up in fine style. It was no accident that in recent shows these songs were presented as a whole. It's a perfect package, sent from somewhere the rest of the world has yet to discover.