My paternal grandfather was probably the most erudite man I’ve ever known. He always had a highbrow joke to tell or some shatteringly profound statement to make, and he wore a suit and bolo tie whenever he stepped foot out of his condo. He spoke with the dignified cadence of someone who knew he had done something with his life. But my grandfather was also really old, and he tended to tell the exact same stories over and over again. Ron and Russell Mael, the twisted fifty-somethings behind Sparks, aren’t that old. But on their twentieth (!) album, Hello Young Lovers, the Mael brothers exhibit the same traits of aging that affected my grandpa: The album is constructed with elegance and wit, but it’s so fucking repetitive that I’m glad I don’t have to visit it that often.
Like a lot of what Sparks has committed to tape in its thirty-five-plus-year career, Hello Young Lovers dresses up mundane subject matter — women that wear perfume, the aphrodisiac power of the metaphor, kittens stuck in trees — in the kind of over-the-top musical backing that’s usually reserved for Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. When it works, it’s absolutely glorious. Opener “Dick Around” narrates the psychological decline of a successful workaholic after a failed relationship (“So I will go about my day/ dicking ’round, my métier/ And realize that life is change/ and furniture to rearrange”), and sets it to a pocket symphony of synthesized strings, Queen-style stacked vocal harmonies, and grinding metal guitars.
But way more often, Sparks’ ludicrously elaborate settings are suffocated by repetitive lyrical ideas that overstay their welcome. After the ninth time Russell Mael names a perfume that one of his old girlfriends wore (“Anna wears CK1/ Jeanie wears Opium/ Trisha wears No. 5”), I’m ready for him to move on. He doesn’t. Except to repeat “That’s why I want to spend my life with you” twenty-seven times. Believe in aliens? You won’t by the time you hear Mael sing “There’s no such thing as aliens” for the thirty-sixth time on “No Such Thing as Aliens.” Or at least you’ll be too aggravated to argue with him anymore.
In between the dead-horse beatings, the Mael brothers pull off some brilliant one-liners and explore uncharted thematic territory (“Here, Kitty” imagines the cat-stuck-in-a-tree scenario as a ploy by single women to lure male do-gooders), which suggests that Hello Young Lovers could have been truly great if the Maels wanted it to be. And they seem to know it, too. They’re too smart to think that we’d swallow those synthesized orchestral sounds as the real thing, too erudite to believe that we’ll buy “Chicks, dig, dig, D-I-G dig dig metaphors” as the cleverest thing they have to say on the subject. Ultimately, the album is too cheeky, too ironically dumb, to work as anything but a two-dimensional joke. Sparks are toying with us, just because they can.