Sparks: Past Tense: The Best of Sparks

Storied US pop oddballs extensive career in greatest hits form

Released Nov 8th, 2019 / By Ben Wood
Sparks: Past Tense: The Best of Sparks Pop provocateurs Sparks have been operating in their own idiosyncratic musical universe - scorning good taste and changing styles on a whim - for an astonishing 50 years. This classily packaged 3CD retrospective is an eclectic, and inevitably uneven, grab-bag of ambitious, smartarse pop.

Sparks consist of weirdly ageless Mael brothers Russell (boyish good looks, improbable vocal range) and Ron (songwriting, keyboards, unnerving mien, Hitler moustache). At their best, their songs take an offbeat, satirical / absurdist look at human foibles, Russell's multi-octave voice combining with Ron's arch, witty lyrics and sweeping, often OTT arrangements to create delicious little mini-operas that sound like they should be in a musical or on a film soundtrack.

CD1 flies out of the traps, with barely a duff track. It opens with '67's spookily compelling oddity Computer Girl (recorded as Urban Renewal Project), before the duo enter their glam-rock imperial phase. Prolific and often rococo, their output becomes increasingly eclectic before taking an electronic direction with their late-70s Moroder-assisted synth-pop renaissance.

1972's debut album Halfnelson, produced by fellow iconoclast Todd Rundgren, was perfectly timed. The glam era of camp, transgression and huge choruses proved fertile territory for the two oddballs with no interest in 'keeping it real' (whatever that means).

The Kinks-meet-Marc Bolan charm of Wonder Girl and the guitar heaviosity of (No More) Mr. Nice Guys set the stage for Sparks' most famous moment, pop smash This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us, the band's first moment of unarguable greatness.

Histrionic vocals, dramatic arrangements and hook-filled rockers predominate for a year or two, with definite debts to early Queen.

Post-glam highpoints include a lush and lovely MOR-meets-the-Carpenters cover of the Beatles' I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Python's Meaning of Life-meets-Las Vegas existential musing of Those Mysteries.

By the end of the decade, guitars were out, drum machines and synth-aided futurism was in. German synth maestro Giorgio Moroder collaborated with the Maels for the first time on '79's No. 1 in Heaven album.

The acidic squiggles, epic keyboard swooshes and thumping drum machine beats of Tryouts for the Human Race still sound fantastic and oddly undated. Beat the Clock, which kicks off CD2, and the album's surprisingly banging title track, seem to prefigure techno but with the vocals lending a melancholic edge.

However, while CD2 starts brightly, the 80s sees Sparks' inspiration begin to desert them. The ace organ-swathed Tips for Teens is a callback to their mid-70s pomp-pop, while the tacky stomp of I Predict is like Joan Jett does My Sharona in an electro stylee.

But 1983's In Outer Space album marks a period of mundanity. Ballsy and ornate arrangements give way to ho-hum 80s electro-pop, while several tunes are marred by horrible mid-80s (over) production.

By '86's Music That You Can Dance To, they sound oddly anonymous - like a less memorable Pet Shop Boys - while the normally intriguing lyrics have lost their edge. With the odd exception, the former innovators were now following trends, not leading them.

Then a minor miracle happens: As the new millennium dawns Sparks remember what they are good at, and CD3 sees a return to witty lyrics and baroque, OTT arrangements. Suddenly the songs are bursting with ideas once more. The deeply odd The Rhythm Thief's Greek chorus is like Gilbert and Sullivan updated; Suburban Homeboy baits hip-hop wannabes in a way that would make Ben Folds proud; and Dick Around portrays the unemployed ennui of a former high-flyer as a metal-tinged multi-part prog epic.

Now revitalised, Sparks sound like they are having fun again, whether they are hymning bourgeois North London (Islington N1) or collaborating with admirers Franz Ferdinand (Johnny Delusional, with two-bands-in-one project FFS).

Weighing in at a mammoth four hours and 58 tracks, Past Tense requires a certain amount of commitment. And if you distrust irony and playfulness in your music, this may not be for you. But if you reckon pop music can be made by, and, for, grown-ups; don't consider musical sophistication a sin against the punk ethic; and recognise that a sense of humour is vital for surviving this tough old life... then book a week off work and dive in! That said, you may want to skip CD2, though... 3/5