Hello Young Lovers
In The Red
et's face it: there aren't many bands around these days with Sparks' knack for writing good songs about really stupid shit. Which is good for them, because the perhaps slightly audacious opening gambit they've gone for with this, their four-hundred and twelfth album, is a sprawling epic about how all they ever do is dick around, titled "Dick Around." It's an exercise in "Bohemian Rhapsody" style overblown gamut-running, beginning with an operatic chant of "All I do now! Is dick around! Dick around!", which then develops into a sad tale of sloth and thwarted ambition, woven round various interlocking orchestral passages and sudden bursts of ludicrously intense guitar shredding. It is brilliant, and at the same time strangely exhausting, as it seems to keep suddenly appending an extra chapter of hysteria just as it appears to be winding down; the ins and outs of the protagonist's petty grievances end up being inexplicably riveting because of the inappropriately grandiose musical accompaniment pulling you all over the place. It could probably make a musical about Kevin Federline's everyday life entertaining.
In that sense, Hello Young Lovers is similar to 2002's Lil' Beethoven, in that any mundane/obscure facet of human existence seems to be fair game for being invested with absurd levels of melodrama, repeated over and over again and made the subject of a song (you perhaps recall the state Russ Mael got himself into over being put on hold in "Your Call Is Very Important To Us, Please Hold"), although it's not quite so heavily orchestral, instead flitting between the stately arranged bits and the traditional rock band setup of their glam era material. Usually within the same song, several times.
Concepts touched on after the initial salvo of dicking around include women who don't wear perfume, winning the favour of a lady through the use of elaborate metaphors/heroic acts of feline rescue, and a song called "There's No Such Thing As Aliens" which is largely self-explanatory. "(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country" features a series of decreasingly subtle, quasi-romantic overtures to a sovereign nation ("I might as well ask you—who's your favourite Beatle? My favourite Beatle has always been Ringo. The least outspoken. The apolitical one.") leading perfectly up to the goofily cheerful popping of the title's Big Question. This admittedly has some relevance in the current political climate, but it's possibly the most oblique, eccentric anti-war critique ever recorded.
"Metaphor" may be the absolute highlight, wherein Russell outlines in a typically charismatic drawl his belief that a firm grasp of metaphor is the key to winning the hearts of The Ladies; at first it's a kind of maddeningly infectious playground chant deadpan of the phrase "use them wisely, use them well / And you'll never know the hell of loneliness," but after the arrangement's built up to an appropriate level of stateliness he busts out the old school "hang on, that's not a German woman?" falsetto and starts shouting "CHICKS! DIG! METAPHORS!" accompanied by soaring, celestial harmonies. At this point it's basically ecstatic, calling to mind that Harlem Globetrotters skit in The Simpsons where they're just gleefully flaunting their superiority by spinning the ball on their fingers.
It never quite scales the same heights of genius after that point; the closer "As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral" has a similarly gruelling arrangement to "Dick Around" without ever managing to be as exhilarating. Elsewhere, "Here Kitty"'s account of the ulterior-motive cat-rescuing exploits of a fireman is engaging enough, but sonically it's just kind of annoying—it has a meowing noise for a hook—and underlines that Sparks are one of those bands who tend to tread quite a thin line between unfettered genius and plain ol' Getting On Your Tits.
For the most part it's definitely the former though—I wouldn't want to call it a "return to form" because Lil' Beethoven was actually pretty good, but it certainly perfects that album's aesthetic and infuses it with some of the giddy energy of the earlier Sparks stuff. This kind of ambitious talent for turning the ridiculous into the sublime is pretty rare, and it's basically really heartwarming to see a couple of guys more than thirty years into their career continuing to dick around and be absolutely great at it.