Distilling the very essence of what makes Sparks the pop in everyone’s champagne bottle is a difficult thing. Is it the shark smile of their lyrics? The wry smirk of a frustrated man thwarted. Is it the seemingly never-ending supply of uniquely crafted intense musical melodramas? Is it the secret in Ron’s eyes? It all boils down to our enduring fascination with those brothers Mael and their dedication to all things beautifully surreal.
On this, the Two Hands One Mouth tour they’ve made it a bit easier for us, dispensing with the big band theatrics and thrills they have brought us right back to the summit of Sparks, just Ron and Russell, a keyboard, a stage and a microphone and like all true pop masters their complexity is unravelled through the most simplistic of settings.
Beginning with the knowing hat-tip of ‘Hospitality on Parade’ the evenings mood is that off a hushed speak-easy before the fight breaks out, the Cabaret cellar club with Russell as the whirling, vicious Emcee, his pitch perfect voice slicing through the pomp of the eerie ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’ to reveal its true raw, masculine muscle.
Although it’s not all starkness and pervy lyrics, what would a Sparks performance be without some triumphant insanity? As the invisible phone clicks on to an answering machine Russell marries the idea of Jackie O while Ron fixes his beret to his head to perform segments from their Seduction of Ingmar Bergman would-be musical – swiftly kicking the notion of the saddo concept album in its softening cranium with their staggering pop nous. They transform something that should be head-for-the-bar territory into something engaging, hilarious and infectious, breaking us open with melody and having us pirouetting in the palm of their hands by the final flourish of a song we never knew we asked for in the first place.
This is where their genius lies, repeatedly slapping our synapse with stunning hooks until we surrender, confusion abated by mouthing ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ into oblivion like some kind of pop propaganda. Dazed and confused that by the time THE HIT arrives it’s been replaced by the new favourite thing they played a minute before. So cheers for ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us’ are replaced by even bigger cheers for the Noel Coward in Crackton jaunt of ‘Suburban Homeboy’ replete with Russell’s charming jig around the stage.
Conjuring tricks over, they humbly bow to the faithful before briefly returning with an exhilarating electro sucker punch of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and ‘Beat the Clock’ which has Ron take centre stage for a dance so terrifying it makes ‘Windowlicker’ look like ‘Bootylicious’ and with more applause taken they are gone, back to Planet Poptastic.
Sparks are fearless pop pioneers. Forever pushing conceptual boundaries until they bleed into the mainstream, there’s a bit of them in all the musical-bravery we admire, not only from their dour musical doppelgangers the Pet Shop Boys but the fearless drive of Ariel Pink, the misguided madness of Moz and the shorts of Bowie. We may never see the likes of their utterly diverse, utterly insane pop canon again, so thankfully for one evening only, we saluted Sparks and they nodded back, finally.