Review

On 'Hippopotamus,' Sparks shows pop genius on topics fleeting to ginormous

The word “genius” gets tossed around fairly indiscriminately in pop music circles. And yet it’s hard to think up a better activating force that allows brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the long-running duo known as Sparks, to rhyme “hippopotamus” with “a book by Anonymous, a Bosch by Hieronymous, a Volkswagen microbus, Titus Andronicus and a woman with an abacus” in their latest album’s title track.

It doesn’t stop there: They weave said rhymes into an insanely witty meditation on the kind of life dilemmas most of us only dream of, in a track that, musically, gently evokes the Oompa-Loompa song from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

Now, if that’s not genius, what is?

More than 45 years since the pop experimentalists’ debut, Sparks continues to traverse the outer edges of a pop music alternate universe where amorous couples let a monkey drive while they pursue other activities; where the quality of one’s tan or mustache are matters of life and death; and where suburban homeboys acquire their cornrows on Amazon.

And pop music is better off for it.

“Hippopotamus” brings the Mael brothers back more into the realm of rock music with the inclusion of electric guitars, bass and drums largely absent from their more orchestral-driven outings of the past decade-plus. But the grandiose musical gesture has hardly gone by the wayside; it’s more like they’ve found the happy medium — or Bermuda triangle — at the nexus of those two impulses.

As ever, Sparks finds life at the center of pop culture the most fertile terrain for exploration, as exemplified in “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” “Life With the Macbeths,” “When You’re a French Director” and “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play.”

Even when the subject matter starts out a little more sober, their unflagging wit isn’t far away.

“Historically historically we make an appeal,” Russell sings in the urgently driving opening of one song, “to something greater than we are when we need to heal.” This call for help from a higher power leads to the inevitable response from an aggrieved deity who sounds overtaxed by the never-ending neediness of the human race, answering by way of the song’s title, “What the Hell Is It This Time?”

Simply put, genius.

Sparks will play a three-night homecoming stand near the end of a new world tour on Oct. 14, 15 and 17 at the El Rey Theatre in L.A.

Sparks

“Hippopotamus”

(BMG)

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