It is a serious, serious shame that I don’t like this album because this is the best cover up to this point and it would be lovely to look at it more often.
First up on Big Beat is Big Boy. From the very beginning, this does not sound even slightly like the Sparks I know. I genuinely feel like Russell’s vocal track has just been planted on some big-noise 70s band. There’s nothing smart about the lyrics or exceptional about the vocals. I don’t even care that this track review is boring because this song is boring. Even the weird instrumental section does nothing. The song goes on forever and there is not a single thing I can pick out as something I like. I have no idea what the point of this song is. Ugh.
I Want To Be Like Everybody Else at least has some perk to it. I think it peaks in the first verse with lyrics describing being hopelessly out-of-sync with the world (Dressing up when the world is Levi Strauss/Dressing down when tuxedos fill the house) and then the plea I want to be like everybody else. But the song goes on too long without doing much more than making that point over and over again and the music is bland and annoying and the production is ugly so I’m going to leave it there.
After listening to Nothing To Do, my hypothesis is that the thing that is really really wrong with Big Beat is that it takes something Sparks is/becomes wonderful at (repetition) and uses it on banal music, horrendous production and below-average lyrics. This album has used one of the key strengths of this band to make awful music and that hurts so much more than if it was terrible in a more independent way. As far as the song goes, I don’t like the weird strained register Russell is singing in and I don’t like this song. This review is killing me. I guess Nothing To Do has its lyrical connections with Dick Around and maybe Nothing Is Sacred, but I don’t have the heart to go into it. I could always get snarky and turn the song’s lyrics around to beat it over the head. If I could just take the advice Better drop the requirement that everything be great and apply it to this album maybe I would be having a better time of this.
But I want things to be great so screw that.
I guess buying things that nobody would (could?) ever buy is one of Ron’s sustained interests, because not only is there I Bought The Mississippi River on this album, but also on Gratuitous Sax, much later, Now That I Own the BBC, another song I don’t really care for. I like that the music for this song matches the lyrics a bit, and it all sounds a bit less generic and more involved than in the previous songs. It has a cool rhythm to it and Russell’s delivery is pretty good. I could do without the It’s mine all mine/You know it’s yours all yours but this song gets a pass mark because it’s pleasantly ridiculous and has a bit of character of its own.
Fill-Er-Up is a song built on the metaphor of filling a car with petrol (or gas, as those damn Americans would say) actually being getting yourself drunk. Again, I feel this weird disconnect between the music and the vocals. The vocals sound kind of country or psychobilly and to be frank I don’t think Russell pulls it off. It just doesn’t suit him. There’s nothing particularly horrible about this song but there’s not a lot to recommend it except for its energy. Should I make a joke about the song’s lyrical content and the observation I just made? No, I shouldn’t. There really isn’t one there.
Everybody’s Stupid is a song I had a pretty good memory of before listening to it for this review even though I hadn’t played it any more times than the others. So I was optimistic going in. Like I Want To Be Like Everybody Else, it begins with its strongest lyrics You fell for me/I fell for you/You think I’m great/I think you’re good and then continues on the same kind of theme without any more real zingers. It’s repetitive, again, but it’s kind of charming me as I listen to it. I dunno, everybody’s stupid, that’s for sure is the kind of fundamentally ridiculous bold artless extreme proclamation I liked so much in Hospitality On Parade (I’m so special/He’s so special/He’s so special/And I’m a king!) so there’s that.
Now, Throw Her Away (and Get a New One). Usually when Sparks do songs that could come across as hateful there’s some humour or some irony or some sarcasm or some self-awareness or just something to make it clear that the song is entertainment or satire and not a manifesto. I can see how this song is supposed to work, but the problem is that the self-awareness is not there and nothing in the song apart from the original idea is at all amusing. It’s a shame, because it sounds more Sparks-like than any of the songs so far and it could have been funny and biting and everything. It isn’t. And it goes on for too long sounding exactly the same. Ugh.
Confusion has echoes of Indiscreet running through it, which in this case is a good thing. And all things considered I think I like this song. This song is more than one fairly simple idea set to dispassionate music and then beaten into submission. It feels right. Like everything has been crafted together and they’re presenting something they like and enjoyed making. The lyrics have some complexity to them and I am enjoying listening to Russell sing. It says a lot about this album that I am surprised to find myself enjoying listening to Russell Mael singing words written by Ron Mael. Bizarro-Sparks.
I’m pretty ambivalent about the next song, Screwed Up. I’m not fond of Russell’s delivery, I like the historical lead-in (other than Positive Jam, do any other songs do this? because I super-like it), I like the I’m getting on my nerves bit, I don’t really like the rest. I’m probably being thick-headed, but I don’t really know what this song is getting at. It’s resentful and unhappy and I am resentful and unhappy about this album so I think I’ll just call it even and move on. There’s only two songs to go, after all, and I’m pretty sure I have things to say about them.
Unfortunately, most of what I have to say about White Women is in the vein of vague academic ponderings and mostly beside the point. I think it’s funny and clever that they are exoticising the “norm,” and this song definitely belongs in the whiteness studies that are springing up in universities around the place. Russell does a magnificent job vocally (as long as they’re WHITE as long as they’re WHITE) and the song coheres in the same way that Confusion does and, unless I’m imagining it, gives off its own Indiscreet vibes. This is the smart and snappy Sparks I wish this album had more of. In comparison with Throw Her Away, I think the ridiculous vocals, bombastic music and lines like What’s good enough for Adam/Is good enough for me do more than enough to indicate the satire that is intended.
Finally, we’ve got I Like Girls, which is much in the same vein as White Women. Dumb and loud and making a big, ostentatious deal about something completely socially accepted. To me, though, it’s less obviously satirical, with two fairly believable and very different readings. I don’t want to go into politics with it, but whatever intent is behind the song (I lean strongly towards the satirical, queer-friendly reading, but maybe that’s just me) it’s sharp and the music is alive and distinctive and with the run from White Women to this closing out the album I actually feel like I’m listening to Sparks again.
Unfortunately, the last two songs aren’t emblematic of the whole album and for the most part the music is boring and the production is bad and the vocals aren’t my thing and the lyrics are only occasionally funny or smart. There are only three songs out of eleven I don’t immediately want to skip. Usually I’ll listen to each song at least twice before putting the review up but there’s only so much I’m willing to go through with this. I very nearly went straight to No.1 In Heaven, but damned if I’m not going to do this thing right.
I haven’t even listened to Introducing Sparks once yet in my life. Ooh boy, the next one will be fun.