Sparks Still Fly
Sparks - "The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte" (Island 5508977)
Catching up a bit after finally putting The Book to bed...with a shovel...at a crossroads...at midnight, I've got around finally to reviewing the latest effort by the Brothers Mael, which was released two months ago.
As with previous new albums by Sparks, one wonders on approaching it whether they can still deliver to the same degree of liveliness and quirkiness which has been their métier for so long. The tracks I'd heard on YouTube suggested that they may have pulled it off once more, and so ordering the album was a given.
On playing it through the first time, I was inclined to two opinions: firstly, while it contained so many of those elements for which Ron and Russell are justly celebrated - the clever lyrics, the off-beat scenarios, the effective arrangements - it didn't quite hit the same heights as Hippopotamus or A Steady Drip Drip Drip; secondly, I agreed with one reviewer who had said that the album tapered off towards the end, with the final tracks feeling more like filler material.
Before I tell you whether I saw the need to revise those first impressions, I'll go through the tracks in sequence.
First, however, I have to enter the same caveat as I did in my review of Hippopotamus, namely that my disconnection from what is 'happening' and 'right-now' in pop and rock music - a decline in knowledge which essentially began with the death of John Peel nearly twenty years ago - makes it difficult for me to make valid comparisons with other styles or artists for some of the tracks on Latte. For this work - like its predecessors - showcases the way in which Sparks appropriate and incorporate a wide range of styles and tropes in new and beguiling combinations.
So - in the words of another of their songs - May We Start?
Unlike the two prior albums, we begin with the title track itself. It's a thumping, high-tempo piece with a sort of electro vibe, with lyrics which clearly derived from some scene witnessed in a coffee shop, but then extrapolated to encompass wider society and its griefs.
The synth vibe continues - with an added world-music feel - on Veronica Lake, a song based on the true story of the wartime Hollywood star who was persuded to ditch her signature elaborate coiffure because all the women doing war work in the munitions factories were trying to ape it and the concomitant time it took to maintain the style was slowing down production. The change all but destroyed Lake's career, but at least they beat the Japs.
We then come to my first signature track. Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is is a song told from the point of view of a neonate who is justifiably appalled by the world into which he has been pushed, and wishes to go back where he'd just come from. This may be the same child who was addressed in Unaware from Hippopotamus, and may well grow up to be one of the teenagers begging us Please Don't Fuck Up My World from ...Drip... (although it seems that it would be too late by then - for all of us).
The whole thing is put to a driving post-punk tune not without its lightness of approach. Here's the promotional video:
Track four is another highlight, but in a very different style. Escalator is a tale of unrequited attraction on moving staircases, but set to a slow, minimal electropop tune which is highly reminiscent both of Kraftwerk circa Radio-Activity and of some of the stuff Daniel Miller was putting out on Mute Records at the end of that same decade:
The fifth number is yet another example of the Maels using historical cultural figures in a more contemporary setting. The Mona Lisa's Packing, Leaving Late Tonight tells of what happens when La Gioconda gets pissed off with her life as an icon and decides to head off into the night. The story is set to a driving slow tribal rhythm (albeit with unfortunate resonances with Wimoweh)which makes one want to stamp one's feet in time to it.
You Were Meant For Me is a song about the awkwardness in making new relationships, right down to the gloriously mundane line "Then your sweater caught my shopping cart / And you declared it must be due to fate". The music is again keyboard-dominated, with elements which give to this listener at least a nudge back to the slower style of English indie from the early nineties, allied - not incongruously - with vocal harmonies in the chorus which hark back to the late sixties.
Not That Well-Defined, which marks the halfway point on the album, talks of the inability to pin down the personality of someone who isn't at all distinctive. The tune is probably the most European-sounding of all of the tracks on Latte, with heavy synth orchestration.
We then come to a track which even by Sparks' standards is gloriously bizarre. We Go Dancing's lyrical premise is strikingly satirical enough; words uttered by a devoted disciple of Juche extolling the virtues of dancing in celebration of the Great Leader. But combine it with an arrangement which is reminiscent of Stravinsky or some similarly 'disruptive' twentieth-century composer, all dissonance and stridency, and the result is breathtakingly, astonishingly effective in conveying the sinister clash between the portrayal and what is being portrayed:
Song number nine, When You Leave, is social commentary of a different and more specific sort. The narrator is telling the bore/boor who has been invited to a party in an act of bad judgement about all the fun things which will happen once he takes the hint and goes ("They'll be breaking out the hard stuff when you leave....they can't wait"), to which the creep responds, "I'm gonna stay just to annoy them / I'm gonna stay just to piss them off". The slow melody reminds me of something which may have come from the mid-eighties, but I can't put my finger on what exactly.
Take Me For A Ride is, lyrically, a deceptive song. From the beginning, the storyline appears to be that of an escaped felon hi-jacking a woman and her car to make good his escape from the law. As the tale progresses, however, we find that things are not what they seem, and that...sorry, but I'm not going to give it away here. It's on YouTube. The music is perhaps the most conventionally orchestral on the whole album and the arrangement, though complex, is deftly done.
If the critic I referred to earlier had a point in saying that the interesting tracks peter out the further you go through the album, it may have been the next two songs which persuaded him to such a view. While It's Sunny Today and A Love Story are good enough tracks in their own right - the former having a slow, almost dreamy orchestral backing, and the latter having drum'n'bass stylings - neither of them has lyrical content which would lift them out of the mundane.
The same could never possibly be said about the penultimate track. Indeed, this is where said critic was clearly suffering from a bout of cranio-rectal co-location. If Sparks have ever written something approximating to a manifesto of how they've approached their work, their art, over the last half-century, then It Doesn't Have To Be That Way is undoubtedly it. The lyrics are a call for artists - hell, for everyone - to stay true to their own instincts and not keep within the boundaries set for them by others (there's even a glancing reference to one of my favourite injunctions, William Carlos Williams' "If they give you lined paper, write the other way"). That the song is as much about the Maels themselves can be gauged by the lines, "I may be wrong...no chart-bound song...no singalong / I'll pay for it".
What is truly remarkable, however, is that these wise words are set to a tune which in its structure and arrangement is as perfect an example of a pop song one could imagine, reminding us once again that - for all the quirkiness, for all the satirical intent - Ron Mael is a proven purveyor of sublime 'mainstream' songwriting.
Although I was first grabbed by Nothing Is As Good..., Escalator and We Go Dancing, this track has grown so much on me in the last month or so that I can confidently label it the absolute pinnacle of Latte. It's got a great coda too. See what you reckon:
It's a bit unfortunate that as a result the final track, Gee, That Was Fun seems a substantial comedown by comparison; indeed, it sounds like a track left over from Hippopotamus in its style and arrangement. But it has its merits. Although the lyrics are on the surface the musings of someone at the end of a relationship, recounting the good times and excoriating himself for its termination ("I'd have been less on my phone, "Should have spent less time watching sports"), given its place at the end of the album, one can't help but read a little more into it in light of the age of the brothers. Either way, it may be an appropriately downbeat way of closing the record.
So, to sum up: is The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte a good album? Undoubtedly. Is it a great album? Well, it's pretty close to being one. Is it as good as the two Sparks albums which precede it? Initially, I have to admit that I didn't think so. Now, those two rather Sparks-by-numbers tracks near the end notwithstanding, I think that it runs Hippopotamus and A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip pretty close. In any case, it's worth hearing and worth hearing several times over, which qualifies it for a high score: this album is as good as they say it is.