Only the subtext, never the text: A song-by-song interpretation of SPARKS’ songwriting
Updated: Aug 1
Note:This is an early draft of a theory that's now more fully developed. A more complete view of these songs are detailed in the 'A meta guide to...' posts, which so far covers Number 1 in Heaven, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins and Balls. Over the coming months I'll apply the same treatment to all Sparks' albums to up and including Annette. If you're still interested in reading then consider it a preview of what's to come.
Does anybody else enjoy those moments when you first understand a song? Not emotionally, but literally. What sounded like a slogan becomes a story and what sounded abstract becomes concrete. If you listen to SPARKS, this is a built-in feature.
They have a learning curve. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve noticed something brand new in songs that I’ve cherished for decades (and I’m sure that other fans experience the same). It’s not just a case of understanding a single song though, there are commonalities across their work. It took me years to notice just how often god, one-night stands and foreign girls appeared in their music, but as soon as I saw this these things would pop up more and more.
There are many self-referential songs (or so it seems). In some, like ‘Pulling Rabbits out of a hat’ or ‘Collaborations don’t work’ this meta way of writing songs is clear. Others, like ‘Left out in the cold’ aren’t so obvious. It got me wondering where I might have missed this, and it turned out that the answer was everywhere. If you look at the subtext of one song it can give a completely new understanding of another song, those common threads tell you about what SPARKS have been working on at any point. To me, it’s changed the band from being random and mysterious to purposeful and nuanced, and more creative than even the biggest fan would imagine.
In this post, I’m going to go song-by-song. What you’ll see is that no only do these songs relate to each other, but when I guess at a meaning, it comfortably applies to tons of other songs around it too. We are all only at the start of the learning curve it takes to understand this great band!
Most SPARKS fans think of ‘Balls’ as the unsuccessful follow up to ‘Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins’, but it has much more in common with its successor, ‘Lil’ Beethoven’. I’d argue that it’s as innovative as anything they’ve done in their career and not the misfire that many think. While the music is influenced by CHEMICAL BROTHERS and PRODIGY, the ideas are straight from Stravinsky. It’s an album about leaving the music industry from the perspective of people inside of it.
‘Balls’ is about courage. This song is the start of a narrative that is still in play 20 years later (though they probably didn’t know this at the time). At this point it looked very much like SPARKS were at the end of their career, and this is their “wake-up call” (or, perhaps calling back to a previous creative rebirth formed from adversity). So many of the lines are about making a big change for themselves: “We are instigation, we are provocation”, “do you want to wait or crash the gate?”, “you can sting or be stung, you can fling or be flung”. Based on the songs that follow I assume that they’re talking about leaving their record label and going alone, which takes ‘Balls’.
The lyrics and artwork for ‘More than a sex machine’ seem to be about an ageing male gigolo wishing to be understood. All he wants is to be himself but he has to follow the whims of the lady who hired him: “How should I act? What should I say?”. Being older and wiser he can bring “art, talk and contemplation” but is still expected to provide cheap entertainment
This can be about SPARKS’ relationship with the record industry. They have the intellect of the male gigolo but are forced to work a certain way. It may even be that the sound of the album was following record company advice, following the demands of “someone who is an eyesore” to produce something that just isn’t SPARKS. There is also a parallel with ‘Ride ‘em cowboy’ with the line “All that you said is “Ride baby, ride””, another song about the struggles of working in the industry.
‘Scheherazade’ is where SPARKS reveal their new inspiration. She is a character from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. The story goes that the monarch Shahryar found out one day that his first wife was unfaithful to him. He decided to marry a new virgin each day and behead the previous day's wife so that she would not have the opportunity to be unfaithful to him. Against her father's wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the king. She told a story over the course of the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by and Scheherazade stopped in the middle. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So, the king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. The following night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, more exciting tale, which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. Again, the king spared her life for one more day so she could finish the second story. This went on for one thousand and one nights until the King fell in love with her.
This is a song about stories. Each of Scheherazade’s tales is split over different nights, and from here all SPARKS’ stories will be split over several songs, they don’t end with the closing bars: “All I want are illusions, Scheherazade, no conclusions, every night, entertain me, no repeats, entertain me”. This could mean they’ll go back to the stories and by using new characters and situations they won’t repeat themselves. From here on she is their muse. The closing line: “Scheherazade, I won’t kill you”.
I’m not sure of the meaning of “colourblindness”, but it reoccurs on “the calm before the storm” and “my baby’s taking me home”.
‘Aeroflot’ is about a trip on the Russian Airline. More than that, it’s about the influence of Russian composers. The idea of imbuing so much hidden meaning into these songs follows the academic work of Stravinsky (who they claim to collaborate with on ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’). His tutor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov also used ‘Scheherazade’ as the basis of a symphonic suite that had a strong influence on Stravinsky’s ‘Petrouchka’. Further to this, the Mael brothers are themselves of Russian heritage. They have decided to stop aiming for the pop charts and instead set their sights on equalling the work of the greats. This is hideously ambitious, hence the double entendres of “We’ve got reservations”.
‘The Calm Before the Storm’ is about their upcoming reinvention on ‘Lil Beethoven’: “Something big is coming soon, something that will change your tune”. Philosophically they had already adopted a new approach, but in terms of defining their new sound and removing themselves from the music industry, they still had work to do. In the bridge, you hear them developing the ‘Lil Beethoven’ sound, the only part of the album that bears any resemblance its successor. They sing “Somethings about to change but it isn’t clear” because “not enough was going on”, while simultaneous working on developing that sound, thereby making it clearer.
The verses run parallel to the spoken section of ‘My baby’s taking me home’. More on that later....
‘Bullet Train’ is a metaphor for SPARKS as an artistic entity. All descriptions of the Japanese train also apply to the brothers: a miracle, impossible, impeccable, improbable, immaculate, proficiency, efficiency, a monument to science and art (if you take science to mean music theory). It’s a celebration of their self-confidence.
‘It’s a knockoff’ is about something fake. This could be the album itself given that they were still producing chart-friendly pop music, quite different to what followed. Was this because they hadn’t fully conceived their new sound or was it record company advice to produce something commercial? The word ‘knock off’ is a triple entendre. As well a meaning a fake it can mean to produce something quickly with little effort and also to kill. Maybe they didn’t put much effort into the album in order to kill their record deal.
‘Irreplaceable’ has someone despairing over something broken while onlookers see nothing of value lost. They may be referencing what the music industry is about to lose in letting SPARKS go. Bands working inside the industry are “designed to break” because there is always another up-and-coming artist to replace them, With this album, the brothers are ensuring that they won’t meet this fate.
‘The Angels’ is about someone leaving, much to the regret of the angels looking over him. They feel defeated because they’re losing someone very special. This could represent the record company losing SPARKS.
Why is it called ‘Balls’?
The first meaning has been covered on the title track; they’re embarking on a courageous act. It could also mean ball it in the sense of ballrooms. The music is for the dance floor but the ideas are from Stravinsky, so what’s the old-fashioned name for a dance party? A ball. Finally, if they really were producing music to the record company remit and wanted out, what they produced was balls.
This album is a creative rebirth sonically, but lyrically and thematically its a direct sequel to ‘Balls’, linked across many songs.
They open with ‘The Rhythm Thief’, which serves as a manifesto for their new classically-influenced sound; it’s referencing to the missing groove and “lights out Ibiza” heralding their departure from dance music. This is calling back to ‘Balls’, It’s was a recognition that the old approach wouldn’t get them to where they need to be, so they’re throwing it away. They’re doing it their way. There’s a possible double-meaning in “you’ll never get it back”, aimed at the music industry.
‘Carnegie Hall’ is about a pianist who works tirelessly on his skills, eventually playing his dream concert. The 1994 Shepards Bush Empire gig would have been similarly magic to the Maels after the fallow years, returning to London to rapturous crowds. In the pianist’s story he plays his perfect concert yet the line “still there is no sign of you” is still sung in the closing bars. For SPARKS, the comeback album didn’t sell, so makes sense for those mournful words to come after the concert. The following words also take on a different meaning if you apply them to SPARKS producing ‘When do I get to sing “My Way”?’
All of this I did for you,
Still, there is no sign of you”
‘What are all these bands so angry about?’ begins by saying that somebody’s stolen their spotlight and bounced them from centre stage. This reminds me of “I earned my reputation, then, when it was expected, now there’s a new equation, who wouldn’t feel dejected?”. It’s looking at the pop charts and saying that SPARKS no longer have a place there. So what did they do? “Crank it up a notch or two”, a good description of the instrumentation on ‘Balls’, but their “profane ain’t profane enough”.
They then look to the classics. Billie Holiday, Wagner, Beethoven, Howlin’ Wolf, Tatum and John Coltrane all had a career resurgence with successful compositions in later life. Sparks ask here if they would “break on through” in today’s music industry, the answer? “Not today”. Being in their 40s, if ‘Gratuitous Sax’ had been a hit then they would already be on the list with Lady Day and Beethoven.
‘I married myself’ came at a point when Sparks felt they don’t need a record company anymore, so they got a divorce. They had creative freedom for the first time in years and they’re “very happy together”.
‘Ride em cowboy’ is about going from success to failure. They’d been dropped by another record label: thrown again, so they get back on again. There’s a callback to ‘more than a sex machine’: “You never sought a sensitive side, all that you said was ‘ride baby ride’”.
‘My baby’s taking me home’ takes a single line and shifts the musical context around it. This was a technique used extensively by Stravinsky and was characteristic of his experiments with imbuing meaning into music. The line seems to mean different things in different parts of the song. The spoken word section follows on nicely from the verses of ‘The calm before the storm’. This is the calm after the storm and the “skies have cleared”. “Everybody’s look is monochrome” becomes “but we’re both colourblind”, and “colourblindness” is also referenced in ‘Scheherazade’.
‘Your call is very important to us” takes another leaf out of Stravinsky’s book by taking the ordinary and elevating it to epic proportions. It could represent the work involved in setting up a newly independent SPARKS, taking steps forward with each green light before being blocked by a red.
‘Ugly guys with beautiful girls’ has Russell venting his rage at losing a girl to an ugly but rich man. This theme comes back in future songs such as ‘Good Morning’ (“you’ll be with some winner, who’s richer, younger, maybe even thinner”), and ‘Scandinavian Design’ (“sometimes she don’t come but I don’t really mind, has a job to do as some guy’s concubine”).
‘Suburban Homeboy’ is poking fun at white middle-aged men who adopt black culture. The brothers have always championed black music, from Motown to Kanye West, plus Ron famously has an Air Jordan shoe collection, so maybe they’re poking fun at themselves. The singalong ending sounds like a celebration, so makes me think its the conclusion of ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’. Being pop stars is no longer a concern for them and they’re happy working away from the business in suburbia.
Why is it called ‘Lil Beethoven’?
The clearest answer is on b-side ‘The Ballad of Lil’ Beethoven’, telling the story of the composer having a child with an ear doctor's streetwise daughter. SPARKS have remarkable compositional skills and are streetwise enough to write lines like “I got my cornrows on Amazon, I started listening to Farrakhan’.
There’s also a reference to Beethoven in ‘What are all these bands so angry about?’, he’s one of the artists that did their greatest work later in life. By casting Beethoven as a child at the time of SPARKS’ own rebirth, are they saying that their best years are still ahead of them?
HELLO YOUNG LOVERS
It’s far from obvious, but the theme of ‘Hello Young Lovers’ is about SPARKS questioning who they are as a band, and where they should take it
‘Dick Around’ is a sprawling epic telling the story of a high-flying CEO who one day receives a call from his love to tell him that he’s dumped. Unable to understand why she would ever leave somebody as essential and influential as him, he loses all motivation, quits his job and spends his days dicking around, doing nothing.
This is about losing your inspiration, but in a far more complex way than the usual way people experience writer’s block. Ron can be placed in the position of the CEO, having pushed and pulled strings to get the top of The SPARKS Corporation, ousting the record company from the board of directors. But there was a problem.
On the previous two albums, every song represented where SPARKS were at that moment, songs about the pursuit and winning of creative freedom. It had been a time of change for SPARKS, which had been a rich inspiration for their songwriting, but had that well run dry? The story hadn't moved forward since the closing bars of ‘Suburban Homeboy’, or to put it another way: “Oh no, this movie said “The End””.
On ‘Lil Beethoven’ SPARKS had set themselves a goal of putting themselves alongside the top tier of classic artists, so what is the next step to achieve that? This song asks that question, and the rest of ‘Hello Young Lovers’ gives the answer.
The CEO does nothing for months (“the leaves are green and the leaves are brown”), wasting time in his garden (“the persecution feels cool, the subtle feel of garden tools”). This can be linked back to “Sign your name with an x, mow the lawn” on ‘My Way’ and also linked forward to ‘Lawnmower’. Maybe this is symbolic of Ron’s thinking space as he wonders where to take the story next.
All is not lost for the CEO. He receives a late-night call from his love saying she wants him back. This shows Ron’ getting his muse back. He’s figured out the next step in moving the SPARKS story forward.
She says “I don’t care what you do, dick around, I will too / next to you”. She’s happy to stay with him even though he’s no longer heading up the corporation. It’s the realisation that their career doesn’t need to take a seismic leap forward for them to use their own story as inspiration. They can instead write about evolving and refining their work. “Balls’ and ‘Lil Beethoven’ sounded like different bands, but ‘Hello Young Lovers’ is a direct continuation. The rest of the album following ‘Dick Around’ is about SPARKS’ attempt to understand themselves in order to figure out where fate wants to take them.
‘Perfume’ is a list of scents and the women who wear them. Think of this as Ron searching for the next song to write. By his own rule, each song must be about SPARKS, and there is plenty to draw from his career. This is represented by the girls in the song, but he doesn’t want any of them. “Screw the past” is his way of telling us that these songs must be about the present to push their story forward.
‘The Very Next Fight’ is about an arguing couple. She is openly admired by other men and this drives him into a rage. He’s now realising that this will keep happening because she enjoys the attention. Many artists over the years have admired SPARKS and then gone on to greater success. In the past, it may have been a source of frustration for the band, but now they realise that it’s a benefit. “Deep down I know this is what you want” is saying that their near-misses are an important part of their story, and SPARKS wouldn’t be the band they are if they had hit big. “What you want is what I want” is where they realise that this makes a great story. An underdog band who remain obscure despite influencing countless artists across countless genres. It’s a great tale to tell, and telling it through their music could elevate them to classic status.
For ‘(Baby baby) Can I invade your country?’ I’ve chosen the lyrics from an alternative version because these follow on directly from the previous songs. This version was dropped from the album, replaced with a version reciting ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.
This feels like an update to ‘Reinforcements’. Both songs deal with relationships using military language, first as a man under siege on the front line, and now as the US army exerting dominance over a foreign state. Read into that what you will!
The non-album version fits the perspective of Ron and Russell having realised that they have an amazing story to tell, and they want to unleash it on the world. If the confidence in their own grand story is represented by US Military might, then the verses are figuring out how to use that. They're “waiting for ”take ’em out!””.
It starts with “I wait for your answer, and while I’m waiting, I may as well ask you what’s your favourite colour... your favourite song...your favourite Beatle”. These are all very simple questions representing SPARKS probing the simplest elements of their own story, trying to understand how to tell it. Further in, the questions get more nuanced: “Has it always been Ringo? The apolitical one?”. It’s as if they’re learning about themselves as the song goes on.
“I need the enjoyment of rapid deployment” isn’t just about sex (or war for that matter). It’s about wanting to act now on telling their great story, but then they realise that it might take longer than they thought: “Counties, planets, stars, galaxies so far”. It’s here that they realise the scale of what they’re about to embark on.
So instead of invading her country, the war is called off: “Your ladyship, your statesmanship has killed our hip relationship”. The ‘statesmanship’ represents how it would ruin the story if they were to cash in on their unique selling point of ‘genius band who are always in the shadows’. For the story to resonate they need to stay as underdogs right up to the inevitable happy ending. Their new goal is to develop that happy ending, and fate will decide how long it takes.
There’s also a reason why they included the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ in the lyrics. The words were written by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet who was negotiating for the release of American prisoners during the Battle of Baltimore (1812). He knew the British battle plans so was kept prisoner overnight, and so watched Baltimore’s last line of defence be attacked from onboard a British Royal Navy boat. If the US endured the battering then the flag would still be flying, and so Key spent a long night listening to the battle, unable to see the flag in the darkness. But then by the dawn’s early light, he sees the flag is still flying.
SPARKS career had always been a battle, it was something that they wrestled with. This can be likened to the US fort being under attack from British guns. The flag still standing means they’ve held their ground, but Russell adds a new part to the anthem. “....and one more thing... can I invade your country?”. America not only survives but grows into a military superpower. This is symbolic of the power of what they now know they can build.
‘Rock Rock Rock’ expands on the idea that they no longer need immediate success, and are more concerned with crafting their story. This must be done in secret, so away from public view (whilst simultaneously in full view of the public). Before this, they would reinvent themselves every few years, often experiencing their biggest successes when they came back as a completely different band. From here they decide to stay in the background while secretly working towards a goal years in the making.
So this is a period of slow evolution, with each album feeling like it’s building on the work of its predecessor. They liken this to a “soft passage” of music, typical of bands who’s best ideas are behind them - the position that SPARKS themselves would have been in if they were a normal band. The promise to rock is a promise to deliver something exciting and amazing, but this will take time. “Don’t leave me” is asking for our patience.
‘Metaphor’ is about more than using clever language to pick up girls. The girls in the song who are “up for metaphors” are themselves metaphors for songs. The start of the album was all about searching for the next step in the SPARKS story, and as soon as they realised the ‘underdog creates masterpiece’ angle it opened up a world of possibilities. This is celebrating how fertile their own story is. If they use these “wisely and well” then their ideas may never dry up. I believe that it’s this very thing that has kept them so creative for so long. I also suspect that all examples of metaphors in the song apply to SPARKS’ big new idea.
‘Waterproof’ is about being impervious to life’s problems, the rain just falls off of them. If they’ve decided to see where the greater story takes them then this takes a lot of pressure off the band. Their story isn’t to top the charts, so why be concerned if the next record sells less than the last? There’s also a verse about being resistant to fake-crying (or “Meryl Streep mimicry”) used for emotional manipulation. This could represent how SPARKS now have a definite path to follow and won’t be swayed by others.
‘Here Kitty’ is about a fireman who rescues cats from trees, and his heroics are repaid in kind by grateful ladies. Like lots of SPARKS songs, it's about sleeping around, so having him gently beckon the cat forward without scaring it and causing it to fall feels like part of the seduction. The fireman is then called to a blazing circus. Amid the chaos is a tiger which is stuck up a tightrope, with the beautiful tiger-tamer calling out for help.
SPARKS often use seduction as a metaphor for songwriting and this applies here. ‘Here kitty’ is about coaxing ideas forward, starting as a simple concept like rescuing cats but getting more elaborate, complex and rewarding. The circus is a scaled-up version of the simple cat-rescuing story, but it’s also more dangerous: “I climb the pole and stare the tiger in the eye”. SPARKS are coaxing bigger and more thrilling ideas forward, maybe working to a vision that’s too ambitious even for them.
‘As I sit down to play the organ at the Notre-Dame Cathedral’: On its surface, it's a neat circular story where the organist wakes each day and goes to play at the service. He whips the congregation into a spiritual frenzy with his music, but God gets the credit despite his remarkable performance. But this doesn't matter to the organist because his only aim is to get the attention of a tourist, each night seducing a new girl from foreign shores. His music is aimed only at her and the message is lost on everyone else. Like the congregation, we enjoyed SPARKS’ music but didn’t understand what its purpose was. This theme comes up a lot on subsequent albums.
It’s also worth considering how many layers of meaning are in play in this song. If their goal is to further the work of composers like Stravinsky then this is a good showcase of their efforts. The song works as a complete standalone story, and within it, the music has a different meaning to the organist, tourist, congregation, Ron & Russell and we the listeners. Also, this is the organist’s daily routine, so he’ll fool the congregation time after time, as SPARKS will continue to do to this day.
Why is it called ‘Hello Young Lovers’?
The title comes from a song in ‘The King and I’ which includes the following verse:
“I know how it feels to have wings on your heels
And to fly down the street in a trance
You fly down a street on the chance that you'll meet
And you meet -- not really by chance”
This is about actively perusing your fate. If it does come true then is it fate or the pursuit? This idea is explored by Shakespeare in ‘Macbeth’, and by SPARKS in ‘Life with The Macbeths’. At the start of the album, in ‘Dick Around’, they had nothing to write about, so that become the purpose of the song. By following this thread they conceive of a whole new purpose for the band by Track 4. Each song is a baby step forward just like the girl in ‘The King and I’ taking to the street to find love.
The title also makes sense if you think of all the times that SPARKS equate romance with songwriting on this album. It’s inviting new one-night stands in the name of gaining new experiences,
The cover calls back to ‘Pulling Rabbits out of a hat”, where actual miracles are being performed before an audience who think it’s a simple trick. Halfway through this album, they land upon an idea so big that it could literally expand the limits of songwriting. In the 1980s SPARKS seemed frustrated that all they got was “polite applause” but by ‘Hello Young Lovers’ they were happy that we missed the magic. They were saving it for a big reveal that is yet to be shown.
EXOTIC CREATURES OF THE DEEP
This is the fourth album where SPARKS follow a meta-narrative driven by wherever fate will push them next, and fate has revealed that they must work slavishly outside the limelight to produce a masterpiece beyond what people could imagine. In the lead-up to the release they performed every note of their career, all in the original key and tempo. This is a feat that no other band could perform, yet there was barely any promotion and no subsequent attempts to cash-in on it. It was done to get a better understanding of their own music - it was research and development. This also applies to the remixes, orchestral concerts, collaborations, radio musicals and “acoustic” shows that followed.
The introduction is a teaser for the song ‘Likeable’, the first of three appearances. The phrase “I don’t care if you love me, just so you like me” is an odd line to use as the centrepiece, but it makes sense if you consider that they weren’t seeking smash hits or critical acclaim. It builds on the line “don’t leave me” from ‘Rock Rock Rock’, but they’re less worried now, they know that they’ll be liked by their fans, and for now it’s only them that matter. The wider public will need to wait until the end of the story to fall in love with SPARKS.
‘Good Morning’ is about a man who wakes to a beautiful woman in his bed and no memory of how he seduced someone so far out of his league. Like many other SPARKS songs, it features a foreign lady, being particularly close to ‘Hasta Manana Monsieur’ where two lovers don’t speak the same language. The story of waking up with a mysterious beauty and thanking the lord can work as a metaphor for songwriting, where Ron can’t pinpoint where a clever lyric or catchy melody came from but is incredibly grateful.
He knows that she’ll end up with “some winner”, which could be another call out to other artists who have hits with SPARKS ideas. They’d previously explored this on ‘Ugly guys with beautiful girls’ and ‘The very next fight’, but here all the negativity is dropped. The man who is “richer, younger and maybe even thinner” won’t wish her good morning, so won’t care about her as much. It’s as if they’re saying that nobody could take more pride in their work than SPARKS, and deservedly so.
‘Strange Animal’ is about the songwriting process. It should be clear by now that these songs don’t just fall out of Ron’s head this way. They’re crafted. Here he pits two musical ideas against each other and layers in meaning on top of meaning. The “Blood on his Hands” is from an otherwise abandoned song about drugged up “government men”. Both lyrics and music show a songwriting journey through inspiration (“and right on cue a bolt of lightning”), perspiration (“if I may be quite frank and I’m not pulling rank”) and then the efforts to make it catchy (as they did later for Stravinsky).
There are even some hidden lyrics included, possibly a discarded verse that was a victim of the strange animal. I’ve isolated it and tweaked the EQ, but I can’t make out the words: https://soundcloud.com/lmno-p/strangeanimalhiddenlyrics.
Finally, they question the whole purpose of the song before throwing it away - all except the chorus (“that can stay, here’s the end”). Maybe it makes its way into a new song. Possibly even this song.
The stand-out line for me is "Entertainment or art - One should know from the start". They've moved much closer to art in the second half of their career without becoming any less entertaining.
‘I can’t believe that you would fall for all the crap in this song’ sounds like it’s mocking people who believe trite lyrics in pop music, but it takes on a new meaning if they’re working to a secret masterplan. We didn’t see the big picture and took each song at face value, and they’re poking fun at that. Part of that joke is that when they say “I want you and only you”, it’s like they’re saying that they only need their fans. That’s not true though, they want the whole world to love SPARKS, not just us fans. They won’t be “forever true” to us alone by the end of their story.
‘Let the Monkey Drive’ has a monkey chauffeur take the wheel of a car while a happy couple has fun in the back seat. This could be about Ron letting his subconscious do the hard work in his songwriting but I think there’s a further meaning. In the song it’s the monkey who does all the work and takes the heat. He’s flipping off drivers and getting wired. In SPARKS’ world that could represent all the stress that comes with being in a band. Will the album chart well? Are the reviews positive? Will the shows sell out? These things don’t matter to the brothers because they don’t care if people love them, just that the fans like them. They’re comfortable in the knowledge that they’re building something significant and are happy to sit in the back and have fun in the meantime.
The monkey therefore represents the facade that SPARKS have been hiding behind. The world sees them as a completely different band, and their greater work is kept secret because “he never pries in their affairs, never listens, never cares”. It’s a more refined way of telling the same part of the story as ‘Waterproof’, where they’re immune to outside influence. It’s also not a coincidence that this song segues into a section of ‘Likeable’ as both songs are closely linked.
‘I’ve never been high’ is about missing the chance to enjoy your youth. It also reminds me of ‘Missionary Position’ in that it elevates a conservative lifestyle choice to epic proportions. My interpretation is that they regret making safe and boring lifestyle choices because a wilder youth would have made their own story better. This theme is further refined later on ‘Edith Piaf (said it better than me)’.
While most of the song is regretful, it shifts to a hopeful tone in the last verse with “I’ve waited and waited, tomorrow’s just a tease, then I’ll be something, look at the camera, smile and say “cheese””. It’s equating getting high with being successful. They know it’s coming their way sometime, but not yet, they’re still waiting.
‘She got me pregnant’ swaps gender on a one-night stand resulting in unplanned parenthood. He’s been used then discarded. All of these songs serve as a foundation on which their masterpiece will be built, and this is from the perspective of one of those songs. I see it a continuation of the line “I’ve waited and waited, tomorrows just a tease” from the previous track. They recognise that the album so far is full of songs that expand on the breakthroughs of the last album, and it’s been a while since it's taken a step forward.
‘Lighten up, Morrissey’ is about a man who is always second place in the heart of his lover because he falls short of the lofty standards of The Smiths vocalist. Here they are putting themselves in second place to him. One of the remarkable things about Morrissey is his force of personality. SPARKS are clearly self-effacing, so maybe they see their sub-Morrissey personalities as the problem with the story.
‘This is the Renaissance’ starts by saying how bad the Middle Ages were coming from the perspective of somebody living through the great renaissance. The line ‘judgement day was every day and witches burning everywhere’ makes me think of what it must have been like for the brothers in earlier years when facing an uphill battle with their career. With their sights set on more distant goals they could enjoy their own personal renaissance.
It’s also possible to compare the Middle Ages to their more conservative past - they’ve never been high after all. Perhaps they thought the way to push the story was to change themselves, pushing them to work with orchestras, FFS, etc.
They then look forward to the present day, which also falls short with “graffiti everywhere”. This is looking out to the rest of the music scene. A key line is “they might think we’re quaint, we don’t really care”. Again they don’t care about how they’re perceived because being likeable is enough for now.
‘The Director never yelled cut’ is about an actor who thinks his take is complete but is left hanging, not knowing exactly what to do. He has no idea what the director wants but somehow he ends up delivering her vision with a great performance. When they say that some directors like a lot of cutting, this is like how other bands cut off a story or idea within a single song. With SPARKS these stories don’t start and end where you expect them to.
On top of that, the song could also express that even though their overall story hasn’t made significant progress on this album, it’s somehow been a triumph.
‘Photoshop’ is a follow up to ‘Funny Face’ in which a beautiful man wants (and then gets) an odd-looking face. It’s about beautiful faces on billboards and magazine covers that have been enhanced using photo-editing software. SPARKS imagery has always been a key part of what they do, but not now - “to think you used to be my friend”.
Not wanting to look good fits the theme of aiming to be no more than likeable. It’s about making themselves look worse, which they do with the whole presentation of this album. The cover has Russell dressed as an old-time singer next to a piano-playing monkey, and what has any of that got to do with the ‘Exotic creatures of the deep’ title? It’s an album that’s deliberately off-putting to those unfamiliar with SPARKS, right down to the opening line of the album.
“Photoshop me out of your life” is asking to be invisible to the wider public. It ends with “Make it look as though I were in hell.... give it a caption of farewell”. They presented themselves as a band who were on their last legs. They looked older in 2008 than they do in 2021.
‘Likeable’ is about someone with enough charisma to have an easy time of life. During this stage of their career, being likeable was perfect for SPARKS in that it almost made them immune from criticism. Their music was admired and had a dedicated fanbase, but was obscure enough that it was left alone. When they say “no hidden motive and no masterplan” is referencing how they’ve got away with producing work of major significance and nobody suspects a thing. They “wonder what it feels like to fall in love” and see it as a bad thing, a “push or shove” as if greater success would mean greater scrutiny. It’s as if they’re pretending to be a novelty band while composing a body of work to surpass the classics.
Why is it called ‘Exotic Creatures of the Deep’?
SPARKS are exotic and deep, and they’re working out of sight. I’m sure there’s a more nuanced explanation out there too.
‘Probably nothing’ is that about that strange and embarrassing moment when you lose your train of thought mid-conversation. It seems relevant to the Maels in their advancing years, but this isn’t a theme that they dwell on on this album. A second meaning is that it’s a tease. “Something to tell you, no nothing yet” could be read as “I know something that you don’t know”. When they say “happens a lot lately, I feel so dumb” it could also mean giving watered-down answers to interview questions in order to preserve the mystery, which of course will “come when it comes”.
‘Missionary Position’ takes the least imaginative sex position, often considered dull, and celebrates how great it is. They don’t need new moves in the bedroom because “the tried and true is good enough for me and you”. Similarly, the music is very conservative, particularly by SPARKS’ standards, but it’s no less great for it. It’s one of the most common chord progression in pop music, and the song is free of the unexpected left turns that characterise their music. It’s also the first guitar solo to appear on a SPARKS album in a long time.
Since ‘Exotic creatures of the deep’ they’d recorded a radio musical, played with an orchestra, stripped their live shows to their barest elements (two hands, one mouth) and joined a band (FFS). On ‘Missionary Position’ they’re saying that they’re done with these more exotic moves for now and are sticking with the tried and true.
‘Edith Piaf (said it better than me)’ is about regretting missed opportunities and feeling that you’ve missed your chance. “Live fast and die young - too late for that”. The verses are filled with the kind of dramatic imagery that you find in 1930s French movies (to which Piaf’s music would make a great accompaniment). In every scene a risk is being taken, a hand of poker or a night drinking in a lively part of town.
It could be saying that SPARKS have missed their chance, and are too old to mount a successful comeback, but that doesn’t ring true given the subtext of other songs. My theory is that the brothers do regret some of their clean-cut lifestyle, but only because a few big stories would be an even richer source of songwriting. They know that they’ve spun even the most mundane parts of their lives into epic music, and wonder how a drunken fight might manifest itself in their craft.
‘Scandinavian Design’ uses interior design as it’s metaphor. A woman visits and they sleep together on wooden floors, so the elegance and simple lines could represent her beauty as well as being about their craft. The basic nature of the music matches the decor described in the lyrics, with only a few elements in play, just like a table and two chairs in the room. The woman stays over because “the sky has bored her”, so could mean she came from the sky, represent an idea coming in from the subconscious. This is similar to how the strange animals entered a different song years earlier. She leaves to be some guy’s concubine, which could refer to more successful bands who have taken a simpler path. But he knows that she’ll be back because his home is better (there’s nothing as tasteless as a chandelier or bric-a-brac in the Mael residence). They know she’ll return when they reveal their secret work to the world - it’ll make them famous again.
‘Giddy Giddy’ is about a city full of people who are giddy, all day and every day. This must mean excitable rather that dizzy, and SPARKS have every reason to be excited about what they’re working on. But it’s a secret, so while he’s a “travelling man in a foreign land” he “suppresses his inherent giddiness”. Later a scientific group come to analyse their giddiness but find no explanation. That could represent how critics and fans would try so hard to understand the brothers but would fall short of figuring them out.
‘What the hell is it this time?’ is about God having his work interrupted by unimportant prayers and demands. He shows patience but there is a strict limit to his tolerance. I can imagine this must be how Ron would feel if someone interrupted his songwriting with a petty request. He has work to do.
Another interpretation is that God represents the greater story that is revealing itself song-by-song. They've been trying to feed it by exploring their problems - “My girl has left, my dog has left, I’ve cracked up my car, the only one who’ll listen to me’s tending the bar”. But none of this is working, so God turns his back on him: “He says “yeah, we’re through””. They need a different approach to pushing the story forward.
‘Unaware’ lists the kind of stories that you’d find surfing news sites on the internet. Stories about environmental issues, business, cancel culture, pop music, astronomy and shoes, all neatly summarised in quite a flippant way. The song then seems to focus on two parents looking down on their child and wanting her to stay unaware of the mundanity and complexities of the world - to remain innocent.
According to my interpretation, they have written several songs about keeping their work a secret, and this fits right in. The parents’ “faces like two clowns” could also refer to the brothers, with the baby being their hidden story, in which case representing it as a newborn is significant.
In the songs that follow this they give signs that they’ve finally glimpsed where fate is taking them - they’ve seen the end of a grand story that will see them go from obscure underdogs to classic artists. Finally breaking through in their seventies!
The closing verse has “apparitions everywhere, silent couples sit and stare”, describing the people transfixed by social media on their phones, numbed by these news stories. Later they will tell these people to “put their fucking iPhone down and listen to them”. This will come on the eve of releasing two movies, and they want people to pay attention. But back on ‘Hippopotamus’ they wanted everybody to remain unaware, to keep their work a secret.
‘Hippopotamus’ is a celebration of SPARKS’ skill at weaving together wildly different ideas. Every verse has something outlandish emerge from the pool as the music goes off in unpredictable directions. It’s almost too easy to miss the genius of the closing lines: “Throw in a hippo, a little Dutch art, an actor performing a Shakespearean part”, where every item in the pool comes together. It’s like the Ron Mael pool of ideas when he can pluck out disparate concepts and still make a pleasing little tune from it.
This isn’t the first time they’ve sung about forcing together wildly different ideas. On ‘Strange Animal’ they do the same, but the end result is a rejected song: “This song shows no sign of a grander design... here’s the chorus again, that can stay, here’s the end”. But on ‘Hippopotamus’ they complete the song, maybe meaning that they’ve conceived of how to complete their own story (the idea represented as a newborn baby in ‘Unaware’). There’s also the imagery of the hippo, emerging from the depths. The exotic creatures of the deep are beginning to surface.
‘Bummer’ is set at a funeral where the eulogies fall short. The mourners turn to him in hope of words that evoke “thoughts everlasting”, but he has nothing to say: “Quoting a Shakespeare line, citing the bible, I’m not sure that that fits, anyway, I am lazy”. But he doesn’t dislike the recently-deceased man: “You deserve something more, but they go through the motions”. Rather than having nothing interesting to say about his life, it could be that no words could do this great man justice: “They have seen on TV, people of majesty who can sum up a life in a phrase - they don’t know you”. It works both ways.
There is also a hell of a lot of guilt, most strongly on the line “what I said angrily, I should have kept to me, what I said to you both, it was prime-time disgraceful”. There is also history between himself and the widow: “Don’t worry I will not try, hitting on her, you’re fine, I respect you a lot, but she still drives me crazy”.
If my theory holds that the two songs leading up to this are about finally seeing their complete story be about to unfold in front of them, then maybe this song is core to that. It could be key to the heart of the story.
On its surface, ‘I wish you were fun’ should speak for itself - wishing that your lover was more fun. If you wanted to read it in a meta way then they could be wishing that the song itself were fun, but it's already fun. It’s an incredibly jolly song, and so it’s more likely to be the bigger Sparks story that they’re talking. Assuming it’s based on their personal lives (maybe the events in ’Bummer’) then something at its core is not fun - not yet anyway.
‘So tell me, Mrs Lincoln, aside from that how was the play?’ Is from the point of view of somebody who is stuck in a long and one-sided conversation, desperate to move away. “Only the subtext, never the text, wish I could push the button for next. Only the surface, never the heart. When will the conflab finally start?”. He nods along politely like a bobble-head doll but is desperate for the other guy to take the hint(with glances at his watch, re-tieing of shoelaces, etc) and end the conversation.
Much like ‘...Carnegie Hall’, the title is an old joke. The President has been assassinated, so you wouldn’t ask the First Lady if she enjoyed the play. It’s about missing the point, and from that, we can assume that this same thing applies to the rambling character in the song. But if he’s missing the point then why not correct him if he’s so wrong? Why doesn’t he explain the point?
It fits that this person could be a SPARKS fan discussing their music and completely misunderstanding it. Ron would want to preserve it’s mystery so wouldn’t set the person right. Only he knows “What lies underneath it all” and he isn’t sharing. This switches to “What lies underneath, ignored?” for the closing line, which might suggest it’s not just the song that the fan has misunderstood, but maybe the band (believe me, the potential irony of writing this isn’t lost on me given I might have missed the point as much as the fan in the song)
There have been so many songs about people not seeing the true meaning of SPARKS, so maybe the reason for this frustration is that for the first time Ron and Russell know the answer themselves. Before now anybody’s interpretation of their work could be seen as having worth, but now they see have a definitive answer to what the whole thing means. Their greater story isn’t a story unless it has an ending, and now it has. The fact that the fan only understands “only the subtext, never the text” means that the true story is the one that’s flowed forward over these songs, even though it’s been hidden in the sub-text.
‘When you’re a French Director’ makes fun of pompous and pretentious filmmakers and is inextricably linked to ‘Annette’. Coming at this point in the album, it could mark them meeting with LEOS CARAX to plot the movie. It also works differently.
It says that the “Hollywood guys, with CGI eyes” have films that lack feeling, or “le feel”. This connects it to “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman”, where the director is driven to a nervous breakdown by the temptation of Hollywood. The parallel to SPARKS is that they enjoy their creative freedom and know that commercial success would damage that if it came before the end of their story.
But even somebody with the credibility and respect of a French Director is put “right on that shelf, over there”, meaning that any art is packaged away, categorised and sold. This applies to SPARKS themselves, who are sold as a quirky cult band, and this somehow restricts their ability to shock and surprise. This will change when they release the ‘The Sparks Brothers’ and ‘Annette’ - they’ll no longer fit into an easy box.
‘The Amazing Mr Repeat’ is a character with no end to his sexual stamina. No man can compete with his skills and no woman can resist him. This can represent Ron’s ability to bang out song after song to the highest standard. But Mr Repeat’s talents have been noticed: “Sign right here, son, on the dotted line, you’ll take the world by storm”. It’s a job offer, maybe a lucrative record deal, and it runs parallel to the seduction of Hollywood for both Ingmar Bergman and the French director on the previous song. My gut feel is that they’ve turned down plenty of offers like this in order to serve their vision.
‘I wish you were fun’: I wondered for years if it was a coincidence that there were two “fun” songs on this album, and now I think I understand. It describes how Ron pulls together chords and motifs to suit the mood demanded by the lyrics and story. Earlier, on ‘I wish you were fun” I guessed that Ron wanted the greater story that he’s telling over the years to be brighter. This song could be him achieving that by crafting a satisfying ending. With it being only a “little bit” like fun, joy and love, it shows the nuance that goes into SPARKS’ craft.
‘Life with the Macbeths’ turns Shakespeare’s work into a weekly television drama. In the play Macbeth sees a vision of his future in which he is king, however, there are several people ahead of him on the line to the throne. Encouraged by Lady Macbeth, he sets about murdering all with a greater claim who stand in his way.
In the song, each of these murders is seen as a thrilling episode of the show, filled with bloody gore. The viewers love it, but it’s still seen as cheap entertainment. This is because it’s being judged episode-by-episode (or murder-by-murder), and people don’t yet see the full picture: “Is there a deeper story, or is it all just gory?”. In SPARKS’ case there is a bigger story but we haven’t yet reached the finale. What’s more, this isn’t an ongoing show: “One season, that’s all you’ll see” - a definitive ending. This points to ‘Annette’ being their equivalent of The Macbeth’s grizzly demise.
By saying “life with the Macbeths is now on view” they’re telling us that they’ve already set things in motion to finish the saga. This could be the seeds of the story laid in ‘Bummer’ or the meeting with LEOS CARAX.
There’s more significance to SPARKS choosing Macbeth. After being shown his future he could have stood by and let fate do the work - would his victims have met their deaths without his actions? He fought for it, just as the Maels did by pushing their story to exactly where they needed it to be. It’s manifest destiny and ties perfectly with my earlier reasoning for why they chose ‘Hello Young Lovers’ as a title.
The relationship with Lady Macbeth is also crucial, who she describes as her “dearest partner of greatness”. Neither would have been driven to such extremes without the other.