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Sparks - Exotic Creatures of the Deep

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Artist: Sparks

Album: Exotic Creatures of the Deep

Label: Lil’ Beethoven

Review date: Nov. 11, 2008

The fraternal Los Angeles dance-pop-opera duo Sparks has existed for 37 years, pretty much within its own bubble. In that time, the Mael brothers have dispatched 21 albums’ worth of smart, catholic, often stunningly original dance-pop-opera, with minimal mainstream compromise or notice. Their production values have substantially escalated, but they’ve maintained their freewheeling dexterity, their Queen-like self-awareness and their hyper-focused humor. Sparks is a career cult band. It’s never had a “Whip It,” or even a “Jocko Homo.” The band’s records invite immersion, Ron and Russell Mael’s intellect is fearless, and their ambitions are inwardly directed.

Considering Sparks’ fierce independence, their lyrical neuroses seem exuberantly ironic. Like all of Sparks’ late-period work (with 2006’s Hello Young Lovers being the debatable peak), Exotic Creatures of the Deep is epic in its hang-ups. Beneath its campy, topical cracks (an estranged lover is advised to “Photoshop me out of your life”; Morrissey is advised to “lighten up” so that our shallow protag will have an easier time getting laid), there lies a vast hell of repressed bitterness, sublimated lust and a flaming desperation to be liked. All the things that most pop musicians manifest as unintended absurdity, Sparks channel into cutting satire.

The title Exotic Creatures of the Deep allegedly refers to the album’s sad, narcissistic cast of narrators. Most often, they represent common passive-aggression taken to glorious extremes. They’re either sexually compulsive (“Good Morning”) or bitterly square (“I Never Got High”). They’re openly manipulative (“I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song”) or dangerously submissive (“Let the Monkey Drive”). It’s that bone-deep pathos that saves these songs from the ghetto of nerdball novelty.

That, and their relentless, head-spinning complexity. The broadly referential hooks are as irresistible as ever, and the elaborate choral figures are in full effect. And there’s even a sandpaper guitar to compliment the sneering humor. There is no ideal on-ramp for the Sparks canon, but Exotic Creatures of the Deep once again re-energizes this weird little alternate universe.

By Emerson Dameron

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