[22 October 2009]
Siblings Ron and Russell Mael, the core duo of Sparks, have made a career of making hard left turns into unknown territories. Since forming in 1970, pop’s fearless experimenters have playfully ducked in and out of genres while maintaining a healthy sense of humor. From glam rock to orchestral pieces, Sparks continue to operate on their own terms, regardless of current trends. So when Swedish National Radio approached the brothers about developing a radio musical, the concept probably didn’t strike them as overly strange. After all, who else would be up to such a task?
The radio musical is a genre so perfectly out of time, it’s perfect for Sparks, who considered the project a welcome challenge. Ron Mael says, “As Americans we have almost abandoned radio drama and it was truly exhilarating for us to work in a medium where the imagination of the listener is so integral a part of the work. Aside from our love of Bergman, we have a love of Orson Welles and his use of the medium of radio was something that inspired us in this work.”
Thus, album number 22 from Sparks concerns an imagined, fantastical journey of renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Soon after receiving a 1956 Cannes Film Festival award, Bergman steps out of a theatre in Stockholm and finds himself magically transported to Hollywood. Whisked away by a limo driver to a studio, executives try to convince Bergman to relocate to Hollywood to make movies. He resists and ultimately becomes the subject of a stereotypical Hollywood chase scene before ending up… well, it’s best to avoid spoilers.
As noted by Ron Mael, the central challenge of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman lies in stimulating the listener’s imagination. The narrative depends on an active listener, one willing to dutifully construct images and characters throughout the course of the hour-long running time. It’s more work than the passive listener will be willing to undertake, but an entertaining mix of music and sound effects rewards those willing to buy into the concept and pay attention.
Thematically, the album explores the age-old art-versus-commerce debate, with the thoughtful, existential Ingmar Bergman on one side and the soulless, explosion-riddled Hollywood on the other. It’s a line the Mael brothers have danced across throughout their career, with their pop instincts and outsider status colliding at numerous points. The theme is therefore a familiar one, but one that works in this context given its novelty of execution and bold-faced conviction.
The music is akin to 2002’s late-career highlight Lil’ Beethoven and the mix of Swedish and English makes for a sometimes disjointed experience (especially if the listener doesn’t speak both languages). Concerning these American ears, the narrative becomes a bit lost at times when Swedish advances the action. However, the Swedish portions do lend an appropriate air of mystery and magic to the musical proceedings.
This being a musical, the songs aren’t designed to function on their own—a refreshing approach in our iTunes world, but one that slightly obscures the strength of individual songs. Russell Mael’s falsetto remains intact after all these years, and the band seemingly references their own discography at various points. “Mr. Bergman, How Are You?” offers cock-rock shades of 1982’s Angst In My Pants and “Autograph Hounds” gleefully dips into electro a lá 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven. These moments offer delightful points of departure amidst the prevailing orchestral flourishes and act as sly winks to fans, each with their favorite era of Sparks in mind.
The band’s own Lil’ Beethoven Records will initially release the album on double vinyl and digital download only, and they hope to bring the musical to the stage at some point in the future.
Throughout The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, Sparks clearly relish yet another opportunity to confound and challenge their audience. Their wry humor and willingness to experiment with different formats continue to stretch the limits of pop music in ways many other acts simply do not attempt. The band continually seem able and willing to explore just about anything—they remain musicians blessedly apart from the herd.
Sparks’ soundtrack for a Balinese children’s film can’t be far behind.