Based on the sheer amount of culture-shifting sound they’ve ignited, it’s astonishing Sparks still have the reputation of ‘unsung heroes’. It’s been over half a century since brothers Ron and Russel Mael started making music together in Los Angeles as UCLA film students, recording their first tracks under the name Halfnelson in the late ‘60s. Despite coming up amid The Doors and The Beach Boys playing the Sunset Strip in its heyday, the self-proclaimed Anglophiles kept their eyes set across the pond, digging into influences like Pink Floyd, The Kinks and The Who. After a flurry of line-up changes and moniker rearrangements, they relocated to England in 1973, inked a deal with Island Records and officially picked up the name Sparks.
In 1974 they released their breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’, sending shockwaves all the way to the Number Two spot on the UK charts with their track, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ and pulling fans in with their sensational appearances on Top Of The Pops. In the decades that followed the band went in and out of genres, dipping into new wave, synth pop, and glam rock, all with a quirky, cinematic slant. They also went in and out of fashion, hitting the charts at irregular intervals, all while inspiring acts like New Order, The Sex Pistols and Duran Duran, and casually picking up the moniker “your favourite band’s favourite band” while driving mega-producer Jack Antonoff to say “all pop music is re-arranged Sparks.”
But the underground and underrated band’s notoriety began to swell again around the release of their smart and strange 25th album, ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ in 2020. In 2021 they released Annette, a critically-acclaimed bizarre musical they co-wrote with director Leo Carax. The same year, director Edgar Wright depicted the brothers’ atypical rise to success in the documentary, The Sparks Brothers, giving them a push from cult-classic art-rock curators to cinematic pop-culture purveyors. Now, the band are currently at work on their next screenwriting endeavour, a “musical epic” called X Crucior. Still, they’ve clearly saved some of the theatrics for their 26th album and official return home to Island Records after 47 years, ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’.
The album’s title track comes with rippling distortion, repetitive deadpan delivery and a percussive and twinkling refrain shadowing the words “So many people are crying in their latte”. It’s the type of track that immediately draws visions in your head, but even if it didn’t, the brothers Mael are happy to assist you in conjuring scenes by way of a viral music video featuring actress Cate Blanchett erratically dancing in headphones and a bright yellow suit.
‘Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is’ also dwells in dramatics, as the duo bring the story of “a 22-hour-old baby petitioning to be readmitted to the womb” to life over post-punk guitars, ceaseless drumming and witty lines from the perspective of a newborn who is already weary at the sight of “Ugliness, anxiety, phoney tans”. They continue that knack for sonic storytelling with ‘Veronica Lake’ an ode to the femme fatale film actress. The song slinks in with ‘80s style synth and arrangements that rise towards a peak at the chorus, as Sparks spin out a cautionary tale of girls eager to live out Hollywood fantasies.
If you’re looking for a paramount example of Sparks’ ability to merge timeless pop, acerbic writing, and inventive orchestration into certifiable earworms, look no further than ‘Mona Lisa’s Packing Leaving Late Tonight’. In it, the brothers shape sounds around a literary tale that could stand alone, throwing voices back and forth like an additional instrument, allowing the song to move unabashedly in peculiar directions. ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’ is a reminder that even now, Sparks are completely content with boldly going first, taking their music into ambitious territory no one else has been before, making it easier for other acts to (hopefully) follow suit.
- Release date: May 26, 2023
- Record label: Island Records