This album's just too damn weird to review. Really. Like if I told you that Lil' Beethoven, the umpteen-millionth album from Sparks, was some weird mesh of classical and pop music, you might think of the stilted latter day work of, say, Joe Jackson or Elvis Costello or someone else who started to take themselves too seriously, and that would be wrong. You might surmise from that comparison -- and from the title of the album itself -- that this is some serious statement. Erm, not exactly. This is Sparks, remember.
So, okay, yeah, let's try this again. There is a lot of what you'd think of as "classical" music here - -big, sweeping string sections, a penchant for dramatic musical gestures, and song structures that are more complicated than your typical pop song. There aren't really many synthesizers -- which have been in tow on Sparks projects since 1979 -- but rather the orchestra tells us the story. But the Mael brothers, the creative forces behind the band, brought along a weird bunch of songs. I guess that's par for the course for a Sparks project, but these are really weird, almost unlistenably weird at first, but strangely captivating on the second or third time.
Lil' Beethoven does stand as one of the most substantial albums in the sprawling Sparks catalog because of its massive reach, but that reach will serve to alienate just as many listeners as it charms but, oh hell, who are we kidding? Sparks couldn't be any more of a cult act than they already are, and this (like every record they've put out for years) is very much intended for that cult, for everyone who's been following the plot all along. And those people won't be freaked out by the bizarre material here, like the poetic/spoken word "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" -- an obvious response to rap-metal and its ilk, albeit a couple years too late -- or "Your Call's Very Important to Us, Please Hold", which irritatingly repeats that very line for four minutes. That's just part of the story.
The album's opener, "The Rhythm Thief", does a good job summarizing the sonic direction of Lil' Beethoven through the lines "I am the rhythm thief / Say goodbye to the beat" and a multi-tracked chorus responding "oh, no, where did the groove go?" The drama is bolstered by a swarming string section, creating the aura of genuine drama -- that whoever this "The Rhythm Thief" is, he really did steal the rhythm, and that the people are truly worried. It's a marvelous way to begin such an odd album, especially since Sparks continue on with song structures like they would've often employed -- quirky, repetitive tunes that sound made for some sort of other-world disco -- except backed by this massive orchestra in the place of the "groove."
The second track, "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall", comes close to wearing out the joke (who hasn't heard the old line "How do I get to Carnegie Hall / Practice, man, practice" before?), but that's the only real misstep. Another highlight, the gorgeous, late-period Beatles-esque "I Married Myself" weds an idyllic, pastoral track to Russel Mael's love poem to himself ("I married myself / I'm very happy together").
Two of the best tracks come at the end. First there's the epic and extremely discordant "Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls", which lulls the listener into complacency with its almost Celine Dion-smooth intro before crashing into the manic choruses. Seriously, this is one of the most mind-blowing tracks on a record out this year. Russel Mael spews out crazed spoken-word monologues asking why ugly guys can get beautiful girls on each verse before the almost-frightening, multi-tracked chorus barks "WOP / WOP / WOP / WOP / Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" over and over again -- and this goes on for seven minutes. The bits of the song sound extremely jarring together, but that's part of what captures Mael's wounded-heart protagonist so well. It's also one of the only songs with much guitar work, which sounds extremely shocking after seven tracks of orchestral grandeur. This song may appear to be a horrible, unlistenable mess at first -- it certainly did to me -- but it's truly one of the most inventive and exciting songs I've heard all year.
And as if things couldn't get any weirder, Sparks close the album with "Suburban Homeboy", a bouncy springtime romp making fun of, well, suburban homeboys. The song is so utterly silly and happy, so, well, so gay, in every meaning of the word, that wedding it with lyrics like "I say 'yo dawg' to my detailing guy" and "I bought me cornrows on Amazon / I started listening to Farrakhan" sounds both hilariously silly and like deadly-serious social satire.
Yes, Lil' Beethoven is brilliant. It may take a few listens to get there, because this is unlike any record that you're likely to hear this year, and it's unlike any record that Sparks have ever released. But it's worth all the effort.