What the living hell is Sam Sparro doing?
When the Australian singer rose to fame with his 2008 hit “Black and Gold”, the world took notice of this slick student of the dance-pop arts and wondered what his deal was. Sparro was soon guesting on albums by dance titans like Basement Jaxx, establishing immediate scene credentials. Everything seemed to be ascendant for the young man, but the throwback vibes of his 2012 sophomore record got lost in the pop landscape due to both changing tastes and the fact that Sparro spent much of that albums tour working on sobriety. Things stabilized in the late 2010s as he married his partner and started putting out small EPs as a way to reintroduce himself to the music world without having to live up to the “pressure” of a full-length. So far, so very understandable.
Unfortunately, as of this writing, Sparro’s third album, 2020’s Boombox Eternal, has failed to make an impression on the listening public at large, and that’s an absolute shame. After being away from the game for nearly a decade, Sparro has crafted what is so clearly the best record he’s ever released and one of the best pop full-lengths of the new young decade. The only problem is whether or not people will connect with his wild concept.
Sparro himself would likely admit that Boombox Eternal has niche appeal, but that’s because this is a record bathed in his love of dance music’s past, the whole thing a tribute to the 1980s pop stars he grew up listening to. This means that for a man who cites Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Daft Punk’s Discovery, and Prince’s Controversy as some of his favorite records of all time, the production on his own full-length won’t have any sort of modern concessions at all. No, Boombox Eternal is canned horn sounds, Teddy Riley swagger, and percolating synths that border that fine line between cheesy and metallic. It is Day-Glo colors and endless mists of hairspray. It is Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” and ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” and Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” all at once. It is Jam & Lewis, Nile Rodgers, and Quincy Jones all nodding in unison. It is Sam Sparro honoring a classic sound that no one else is touching on in 2020, at least not with this level of care and bombast.
Is it cheesy? Deliberately so: the “Your Vibe” interlude has Sparro calling into a radio station to dedicate a song to “music” itself, his true love. Yet ’80s dance-pop is made out of broad themes and immediate earworms, and while each track on Boombox Eternal can be traced to an obvious influence, the whole package comes together strikingly. Sure, “Marvelous Lover” is pure 1999-era Prince pop (catch that bubbly synth match his vocal line on the chorus syllable-for-syllable), but those sharp guitar tones are more INXS then they are the Purple One, making the song one notable degree away from pure imitation. This is synthesis with a heavy emphasis on “synth”.
While “’80s dance-pop” is certainly a vibe, Sparro knows that a subgenre that specific still has levels and nuance, which is why Boombox Eternal veers from energetic radio-ready hits to awash-in-ringing-guitar-tones ballads. For every “Love Like That” (which is Sparro going full Janet Jackson, the song threatening to break out into her classic “If” at any given moment), there’s a gorgeous synthpad wave of sound like “Outside the Blue”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on Michael Jackson’s 1991 Dangerous.
For every affecting ballad like the gorgeous electro-soul highlight “Eye to Eye”, there’s an early ’90s house cut like the four-on-the-floor standout “The PPL”. Default keyboard templates (clavinet, timpani drum, so many gloriously-atrocious horn sounds) run rampant through Boombox Eternal, but Sparro weaponizes them for maximum pop impact, these elements never distracting from the tight songs he’s penned nor ruining any particular motif. Instead, it’s all mixed together where the only thing you’re feeling is the groove, the vibe, the carefree excitement of putting on a classic maxi-single for the first time.
Is Boombox Eternal flawless? No. The “Invisible Touch”-by-way-of-Duran Duran opener “Pressure” pales slightly to the other upbeat cuts on the record, and Sparro’s lyrics could’ve used a shade more specificity. Although his vocal performances are always on point, especially hitting that high-note on “Everything”, arguably the best song he’s ever made. Still, these are minor quibbles for an LP that bursts with so much enthusiasm, so much joy, and so much love for a style that often gets dismissed or is greeted with outright disdain.
Sure, some of those ’80s pop hits were trashy and disposable, but not every song needs to possess great artistic intent. Sometimes you want to just groove out to some orchestra hits while mouthing along to lyrics about how you just gotta “break the feelin’ / break the ceiling” ad nauseam. Dance-pop has a way of goading us into pure euphoric release, and Boombox Eternal is the sensation of Sparro hitting that goof-pop sweet spot over and over again.
To Sparro’s credit and detriment, Boombox Eternal perhaps did its job too well, paying homage to ’80s synthpop scene with so much dedication and care that most contemporary listeners might write it off as nothing more than an ’80s synthpop album. Yet for a certain caste of people, this is the record that gets all of those little sonic details perfectly right, and Sparro’s level of craft is nothing short of obsessive. It’s the kind of record you can fully enjoy on your first listen but end up loving it even more on your 20th. It’s a minor miracle of an LP, and with any luck, it will find a wider audience, even if at the end of the day, it will sound no better than between the ears of Sam Sparro himself.