Sparks – The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte – Album Review

The Brothers Mael – better known to the world at large as Sparks – are, artistically speaking, in the rudest of health. More than five decades have now passed since siblings Ron and Russell first came onto the scene, and the pluckiest of underdogs, continually ploughing their uncompromising artistic and musical furrow, have notched up a staggering 26 albums in that time.

Very few acts have the kind of longevity which Sparks have managed to achieve, and at a point where they should be in the twilight of their lengthy career, the Maels appear to be more popular than ever. A decent amount of credit should go to director Edgar Wright’s remarkable documentary-cum-love-letter to the boys, The Sparks Brothers, which raised the group’s profile and exposed a whole new generation to their genius, which had been mainstream-adjacent for far too long.

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“Your favourite band’s favourite band” is how the strapline on the poster summed them up, which is a pretty good capsule review of them, as it goes. While only occasionally troubling the limelight previously, Ron and Russell Mael have still been hugely influential on the music scene, and greatly respected by so many bands and artists. While you may not have heard Sparks yourself, you will likely have heard someone’s tracks which have been swayed or guided by the pair’s output, and essentially experienced Sparks by osmosis.

To not only maintain but actively gain momentum after 50+ years is no mean feat, and thanks to a reinvigorated fanbase, now more than ever is the time for Sparks to fly. Their latest release – just in time for their umpteenth world tour, hot on the heels of the last circuit which they only completed about a year ago, having been delayed by the pandemic – sees the fraternal powerhouses as alive and vibrant as ever, with The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, which marks their return to Island Records, after a gap of 47 years.

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The title track – which saw a video with a barnstorming bit of choreography from Cate Blanchett – is a powerful piece of throbbing, driving electronica which sets out Sparks’ stall right from the off. The sheer infectious energy of the song virtually punches its way out of your speakers, and manages to feel so current and vital, while also unmistakably Sparks. From that high octane slice of ennui, we move onto ‘Veronica Lake’, which is based on the astonishingly true story of how the actress’ famous ‘peek-a-boo’ hairstyle almost managed to derail the American war effort.

The third track – and also the album’s third single – is surely destined to go down as being one of Sparks’ all-time classics, and sums up the kind of offbeat, dark humour which they are known for. ‘Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is’ is a rocking and upbeat song of an existential crisis from a baby less than 24 hours old who has seen enough of the outside world, and is begging for its return to the womb. With things seemingly going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in a handbasket at such a rate of knots, the sentiment is one which you can really get on board with.

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Escalator’ gives us a deceptively simple-sounding track all about a chance meeting leading to an unrequited love, which in some ways seems almost like a kindred spirit to ‘Johnny Delusional’, one of Sparks’ collaborations as FFS with Franz Ferdinand. One of the Maels’ touchstones in their work is in using various pop culture figures or icons, and in ‘The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight’, we have the fanciful, fantastical of the famous painting harbouring something at the back of that enigmatic smile, leading her to pack up and go off around the world.

Ron and Russell take the hoary old trope from a million love songs and try to give it a new spin with ‘You Were Meant For Me’, which is typical of Sparks always looking for a new angle on things. Coming across somebody who manages to avoid categorisation is a world of binary terms is the focus of ‘Not That Well Defined’, which at points has a grand and almost Jacques Brel feel to it. Things take a rather more unsettling turn with ‘We Go Dancing’, which is a satire upon the cult of personality in North Korea, calling Kim Jong Un the greatest DJ in the whole world, while – unlike the name of a previous Sparks hit – not being music that you can dance to.

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The blackly celebratory air of ‘When You Leave’ wonderfully counterpoints the growing discontent of partygoers waiting for somebody who has overstayed their welcome to depart, with the petty spitefulness of said individual refusing to go, as he doesn’t want anyone to have a good time. ‘Take Me For A Ride’ is a masterful track, not only because of the glorious orchestration by Nathan Kelly, but also with what seems to be the tale of a fugitive on the run skilfully wrongfooting the listener with a great twist you can’t see coming. The chant of “Let’s go, let’s go Laura” is also wickedly infectious.

It’s Sunny Today’ has a real bleakness to it, with the rather uplifting words being given a downbeat turn by the constant repetition, and a shifting meaning as the song continues, in the same vein as ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’. Sparks has a real mastery of taking the darkest subject matter and giving it a lighter spin, and vice versa, which is ably demonstrated with ‘A Love Story’, being one of the least likely depictions of a relationship to be committed to song, having something of a seedy underbelly on show throughout.

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With ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way’, we have yet another shift of gears, with a tune which should be the clarion call for everyone who refuses to be pigeonholed or boxed in, striking a note for independence and doing your own thing. Eli Pearl’s acoustic guitar work gives almost a folk song feel, with some elements of ABBA creeping into the scoring and vocals. It has a feel of self-reflection by the Maels, with references to “no chart-bound song”, and – followed by the album’s last track, ‘Gee, That Was Fun’ – it feels much like a perfect valedictory look back at an artistic life well lived, and would be a perfect way to close the book on Sparks.

Thankfully, Ron and Russell show no indications of shutting up shop, for which we should all breathe a huge sigh of relief, as this is Sparks being as vibrant and fresh as they ever were. Age evidently shall not weary them, and long may the Maels continue, as this is imperial phase Sparks, yet it also feels like they are yet to peak. In their recent shows in London, Russell said that he and Ron used to think only big names got to play the Royal Albert Hall, so he guesses it must mean that Sparks are a big deal now. Better lat(t)e than never, boys.

The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is out now.

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