SPARKS: A meta guide to ‘Balls’
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Sparks’ career can be neatly split into two halves. For the first half they’d switch genre, hop labels and seek out new audiences in far-off places. But then, with their neo-classical reinvention on 2002’s Lil Beethoven, they set ground zero for a sound and attitude that defined a further two decades of creative flourishing. When asked how they conceived this new beginning, the brothers claimed to have abandoned a whole record’s worth of material in the style of its predecessor, making this a sudden change of direction as it came just 2 years after Balls. But this doesn’t seem to be the whole truth - there are lyrics that reveal a different story that’s far more interesting than anything shared by the Maels in interviews.
Balls is an end of an era, and it pays to think of it as their music industry break-up record. This way, the songs take on new meanings and interconnect on tricky themes. To bring these songs together you need to try a different perspective on the history of Sparks:
Ron and Russell had the idea for 2002's Lil Beethoven in 1994 or even earlier, but after years out of the spotlight, and broke from the failed Mai the psychic girl movie project, they needed pop hits to resurrect their career.
They mount a successful comeback with GSASV, an album that ends “instead of the usual drums and bass he heard senseless violins”, the perfect segue into The Rhythm Thief. Taking influence from Charlie Parker, they sought to invent a new classically influenced genre. GSASV was intended as a stepping stone to Lil Beethoven. https://www.sparks-onefortheages.com/post/sparks-a-meta-guide-to-gratuitous-sax-and-senseless-violins
There’s a power struggle with the record label, so instead of furthering their work, they’re co-opted into re-recording the hits for Plagiarism. The only positive from this is they get to experiment with orchestral arrangements.
For the next album, the label demands pop hits. Unwilling to wait for permission to realise their vision, they set about making two records at once. Most of Sparks’ effort goes into finally making Lil Beethoven while Balls is knocked off quickly, with little effort. Both are developed in parallel.
What they deliver for 2000 is an album designed to end their record deal - it’s a side project. It follows the label remit, filled with catchy songs that never deviate from the 4-minute pop format, yet somehow it’s as deeply impressive as anything they do.
What I’m setting out to prove in this post is that every verse, chorus and bridge on this record can be seen to support the theory that this is an album that’s “designed to break..designed to fail”.
Title track Balls [lyrics] is a statement of intent. Sparks are showing balls of steel in wrestling back control of their career, and the opening lines work as a definition of what they must create for the label.
“Nothing too prosaic
Nothing too archaic
Here's your wakeup call”
Next they state that they’re making a change, taking inspiration from The Prodigy’s “punkin’ instigator” in the lyrics as well as musically.
“We are provocation
We are instigation
Here's your wakeup call, your second call”
Being turned into a legacy act with Plagiarism was their first wake-up call, and now being asked to make pop hits is their second.
“You can sting or be stung
You can fling or be flung
It's all up to you”
Next they show that they’re manipulating the label:
“When they're being with you
They're agreeing with you
What you say is true, it comes from… Balls”
The label are “agreeing” with Sparks, so Sparks are telling them what they want to hear. Then they state that they’re not going to wait, as if they’ve been promised creative freedom after one more pop record.
“You can wait for saviours
Meting out their favours
You can wait and wait
Hope may spring eternal
Sounds a bit maternal
Do you want to wait, or crash the gate?”
It’s “maternal” in they’ve had enough of being dependent on the parental figure of the label. They have the confidence to know that this won’t mark the end of their career:
“Others will respect you
Others will elect you
They'll accept your calls”
The“call” is a recurring metaphor for acceptance. On (When do I get to sing) “my way” there was no point in wasting a dime on “a call to god knows who”. Later we see the call is accepted, but they’re placed in a queue - “Please hold, please hold”.
“Others will desire you
They may not admire you
But they will admit
You do transmit
More than a sex machine [lyrics] tells a story about an ageing male gigolo who feels demeaned by having to perform for money. Being older and wiser he can bring “art, talk and contemplation” but is still expected to provide cheap entertainment. By being asked to make simple pop songs, Sparks are in a similar situation.
“I earned my reputation
Then, when it was expected
Now, there's a new equation
Who wouldn't feel dejected?”
It’s saying they’re now a veteran band and so aiming to copy the charts won’t cut it. They make a similar point in What are all these bands so angry about two years later, listing classic artists who achieved their greatest success late in their career but still wouldn’t score a hit in today’s pop charts.
“But I'm much more than this
More than a sex machine
I really do exist
More than a sex machine”
Being undervalued is a striking recurring theme in Sparks’ music, examples being (When do I get to sing) "My Way", Pulling rabbits out of a hat and One for the Ages. So the label will get the album that they requested - straightforward pop complete with the artistic finesse present in all of Sparks' work:
“Well, happy happy birthday
You'll get what you had wished for
Art, talk and contemplation
Someone who is an eyesore”
This doesn’t literally mean ugly - they knew how they’d be perceived with this record. The year 2000 incarnation of Sparks looked like they were treading water, doing little to advance the sound of GSASV, and they held no commercial appeal. The record company “got what they wished for” with a pop album. It sounds like they were discouraged from taking the cerebral approach applied 2 years later.
“Oh, what a time, that's what you said
You never asked, are you well-read
You never sought a sensitive side
All that you said was 'ride, baby, ride'”
This calls forward to Ride ‘em cowboy, in which they neatly sum up their approach to withstanding the highs and low of their career: “I got thrown again - get back on again”. It’s also a song that looks back: 1979’s La Dolce Vita was also from the perspective of a man sleeping with a rich older woman because she foots the bill for their nights on the town. It’s a comic metaphor for Sparks being happy to “cash in” on the disco sound (“you’re the only bank that’s open all night”). More than a sex machine can therefore be seen as a sequel in which the protagonist feels trapped in his role.
The next line can be read in two ways:
“I may not be poetic
Still phoney rhymes with phoney
I may be too athletic
Too healthy and too tony”
It sounds like he’s saying he’s not a poetic person but can also mean that he’s not allowing himself to be poetic on this album, illustrating this by rhyming “phoney” with itself, an apt choice of word because they don’t consider this music true to where Sparks are heading. They want it to fail commercially, but question if they’re too good to pull this off! They may be too athletic, healthy and tony (meaning stylish or sophisticated) to look like they’re treading water!
Scheherazade [lyrics] 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, no longer wishing to kill her.
This is an early example of a framing device, where her nightly tales are contained within her own bigger story. Song-by-song, Sparks are achieving the same thing: each song is a unique tale that furthers a larger story.
“Scheherazade, you enslave me
Others begged, crying "save me"
Wasted words, hatred tore me
Scheherazade, tell me stories”
The “wasted words” call back to Plagiarism. It must have pained them to spend time and resources in the studio on a project that didn’t move Sparks somewhere new. “Others begged” being the label that talked them into it.
“Ships at sea, all imagined
Bravery, all imagined”
These are fragments of songs, only imagined because the record label won’t allow them to realise this vision.
“Bloodless blood, colourblindness
Scheherazade, who's behind this?”
Colourblindness is another recurring motif, coming back in The Calm before the Storm (“everybody’s look is monochrome”) and My baby’s taking me home (“a rainbow forms, but we’re both colourblind”). I take it to mean that they have the idea for Lil Beethoven, but can’t yet develop it, so it’s seen only in black and white.
“Scheherazade, there's a sameness
To the world in its plainness
But your worlds are on fire
Filled with lust
Filled with liars”
This compares the “plainness” of Balls (songs about transport, ageing sex and education) with the “worlds” they see on Lil Beethoven, “filled with lust” for the project. The “liars” are the record label that stands in their way or could mean that Sparks are lying to the record company.
“All I want are illusions
Scheherazade, no conclusions
Every night, entertain me
No repeats, entertain me”
They’d been forced to “repeat” themselves, first by re-recording old work and then by continuing in the dance pop format, so the song ends with a vow to continue the greater story they’re telling.
I won't kill you”
Russian airline Aeroflot [lyrics] has long been the butt of jokes for its poor quality - the double entendres “we’ve got reservations” works as a great put down. Here though, it's treated as the height of luxury. It’s a metaphor for the album itself.
Balls was presented as two men in their fifties trying to sound young, a watered-down version of The Prodigy or Chemical Brothers. Like the airline, it appears low quality, but Sparks are having a great time nonetheless! “I don't know about you, but I'm sitting pretty”. They later employ a similar idea in Let the monkey drive, where a couple makes love in the back of a car, oblivious to the stresses of the journey.
Two minor points: The Russian reference is a continuation of Scheherazade, which was a big fixture in Russian art, and this song features a love interest- a fixture of every Sparks album.
The Calm Before the Storm [lyrics] is about their upcoming reinvention on Lil Beethoven: “Something big is coming soon, something that will change your tune”. It’s not only the sound that will change but also the attitude of these songs. The opening verse addresses the downbeat tone of Balls:
“The dogs are letting postmen come and go
The muscle cars are driving way too slow
And everybody's walking on tip-toe
For every yes, a hundred no's
The kind of day when nothing hits the fan
The kind of day when nothing's in demand
The kind of day when music means Chopin
And love is shown by holding hands”
Balls lacks the plot twists and surprises usually found in Sparks lyrics, and this is by design. Think of how bold each song is on Lil Beethoven and beyond. They chose to not be that good here, but still produced (in my opinion) a classic record, albeit a fake:
“False sense of security
Shown to be a forgery”
This calls forward to It’s a knock-off, which points to this album being constructed only to kill their record deal. It’s a forgery. Next, they evoke the colourblindness from Scheherazade.
“And everybody's talk is monotone
And everybody's look is monochrome
And everybody's flight has been postponed
The loudest sound's a dial tone”
The high point of the song comes in the bridge (as is so often the case in Sparks songs):
“Something's about to break, but it isn't clear
(Not enough was going on, oh no)
Is it something we should cheer
(Not enough was going on, oh yeah)
Is it something we should fear
(No enough was going on, oh yeah)”
This is the joy and trepidation that comes ahead of a project as bold as Lil Beethoven. Their new sound “isn’t clear” because “not enough was going on” so they seek to change that, here and now. This beat-free passage with stacked vocals is the closest this album gets to its successor (and even more so on The Calm Before the Opera remix). It’s as if they’re conducting research, or even commencing work on their true vision, so the backing vox call of “oh no” becomes “oh yeah”.
How to get your ask kicked [lyrics] is exactly what the title describes: each verse outlines the steps that lead to someone taking a beating:
Just a glance
To incite the wrath
Of her confidante
Strong though gaunt
And that's how to get your ass kicked
Bikes in chrome
Cut you off
And you flip them off
And they take their turns
And that’s how to get your ass kicked”
What’s telling here is that the narrator doesn’t make a big deal of his misfortune:
“Oh well, oh well, oh well, oh well”
The song can be interpreted as the narrator intentionally getting his ass kicked. If you consider that Sparks wanted to be dropped from their record deal, and planned to do this with a pop record free of hits, then this is what it must have felt like to deliver it to the label.
Bullet Train [lyrics] is a metaphor for this project - developing an album with a very specific remit at super speed. All descriptions of the Japanese train also apply to what they’re doing here: a miracle, impossible, impeccable, improbable, immaculate, proficiency, efficiency, a monument to science and art (if you take science to mean a rule-based approach to music). It’s a celebration of their self-confidence.
It references a negotiation:
“Can't we work this out between us, can't we work it all out
Can't we work this out, work this out, work it all out
I should learn from those around us to be more round about
Can't we come to some solution, can't we work this all out”
But during this negotiation they have a clear view of Mount Fuji:
“And to the right, Fuji, Mt. Fuji, oh wow
Yes, to the right, the rarest sight, Mt. Fuji, oh wow
We can count ourselves lucky, oh so lucky, oh wow
It's the rarest sight, Fuji, not hidden by clouds”
This mountain features heavily in Japanese art and its image has travelled the world. It represents the quest for beauty and perfection, which is how Sparks see Lil Beethoven. The album has therefore taken us from “something’s about to break - but it isn’t clear” to a view of perfection “not covered by clouds”.
“If you're gonna cry, better wait, do it at home
If you're gonna cry, gonna cry, do it at home
On the bullet train, nobody, nobody cries
No one's ever cried, never, on the bullet train, no”
Bullet Train and How to get your ass kicked can both be describing a humiliating meeting with the record company, and by leaving the tears until they get home they’re putting on a front.
It's a Knockoff [lyrics] Like Confusion, Tsui Hark and When you’re a French Director, this calls forward to a future Sparks movie project, this time the aborted soundtrack to Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s‘Knockoff.
“I confess that this is really not my song
I bought it in Hong Kong
It's a knockoff”
It’s plausible that this is a rewrite of something developed for the soundtrack. As Balls is a side-project to appease the label, they’ve “knocked off” a song to fill it, effectively stealing this from their other projects.
“I confess that this is really not my voice
Although I had a choice
It's a knockoff”
Their true "voice" is telling the story of Lil Beethoven, but they’ve chosen not to use it here.
“So close to real
The look, the feel
So close, and yet
The paint's still wet”
More evidence that they consider the album a fake.
“You keep thinking that you're really holding hands
Sorry, that's no hand
It's a knockoff”
Holding hands is a sign of trust and companionship, so if Sparks were toying with the record company then this could be shown as fake. But it then says that they have no reason to feel guilty:
‘Just my luck that I would look into your eyes
Then I realized
They were knockoffs’
Looking into someone’s eyes is a sign of sincerity, so if these are fake then the record label doesn’t necessarily have Sparks' best interests at heart.
“And the Renoir you see hanging on the wall -
Bought it at the mall
It's a knockoff”
That’s how I think of this album - an accomplished work of art that Sparks knocked off while developing something more grand. The word “knock-off” has several dictionary definitions: to do hurriedly, with little effort, to discontinue, to kill, to deduct, to defeat and to rob. All of these can be applied to this narrative about Balls.
It’s Irreplaceable [lyrics] has a shared sentiment with The Angels, who are shamed by their loss of someone who “looks so fucking good”, This is the record company losing Sparks, and this explains how that played out:
“As you search secondhand
To replace what you lost”
This is from the label’s perspective, searching for “secondhand” Sparks music. Maybe they aim to repackage the band as a legacy act to make up for the inevitable failure of their investment in Balls.
“He's a nervous old man
And you ask "what's this cost"
This is something you ask when presented with an unexpected item on the bill. The nervous old man could be a Mael brother pointing out how a clause in the record contract that allows Sparks to leave freely..
“Somehow it crashed to the floor
Where's the concern, he knows there's more”
Balls is an album that will “crash to the floor”, but the label is unconcerned because they believe that there’s more to exploit from the back catalogue - however they’re incorrect:
“Somehow a note's on your door
You have been burned, there are no more”
Sparks have walked away from the deal leaving the label with pie on their face, and this is played out in the song as a public humiliation:
“Somehow you stumble and fall
Glass everywhere, everyone roars
Somehow a telephone call
You were a pair, not any more”
Sparks have dumped the label to become self-sufficient and they’ll soon announce that they’ve married themselves. They end the song by describing what they’ve achieved with the Balls project:
“They're designed to break, they're designed to break
They're designed to fail, they're designed to fail
They're designed to flake, they're designed to flake
They're designed to fail, they're designed to fail”
“Designed to fail” brings to mind a cheap imitation, which connects this verse from it’s irreplaceable back to it’s a knockoff.
It's Educational [lyrics] is about conducting research, and it serves as an analysis of Sparks’ experimental approach to making pop music. This is songwriting about songwriting.
“Hey you, tell me what you know
Hey you, tell me everything you know
Why the subjects move to a constant beat
Would the motion change with more heat
Do the subjects have appetites
Does this just occur on one site”
The “subjects” are songs or snippets of ideas. Consider that they’re producing two albums at once using a shared process. The works are interconnected, so how does one affect the other? “Does this just occur on one site”?
“Do the subjects seem to react to light
Do the males among them tend to fight
Does the blank look mask pain or fear
Does it bother them that we're here”
Lil Beethoven is an expression of creative freedom, Balls is constrained, yet both were apparently developed in parallel. With each song saying something about Sparks at that time, with many overlapping themes, they need to channel their ideas in two directions. They’re experimenting with light vs. darkness, masking pain and fear, and even dropping puns on the Maels arguing.
The Angels [lyrics] is Sparks’ final departure from the world of compromise and contractual obligations.
“I heard the angels call your name
I heard the angels call your name
They feel ashamed
They feel ashamed
Because you look so fucking good
I saw the angels glaring down
I saw the angels glaring down
They feel inane
They feel in pain
Because you're oh so fucking cool”
They’re leaving, a shared sentiment with next song The Rhythm Thief - “you’ll never get it back”. This isn’t the first segue into that song - Senseless Violins had already promised to drop the drums and bass, but the band were prevented from starting the project. This time things are different:
“Me, I take it in stride
Me, I know I'm on the right side this time”
There’s a third segue into The Rhythm Thief. Non-album track Wonderbar is the sound of Lil Beethoven used to celebrate goal-after-goal in Bundesliga, a metaphor for beating a German record contract, see also “auf weidersein to the beat”
Balls is an album that works on several levels, and that even applies to the title. It can represent courage - what they’ve done takes balls of steel; they have the label by the balls; it’s also slang for testicles and the album serves as the conception of its successor. What resonates most for me is “balls’ as slang for nonsense or rubbish - it’s an album that’s “designed to fail” commercially and they dare to call out its own quality in the title.
And yet despite Sparks stacking all odds against themselves, what they’ve produced with Balls is a beautiful piece of work where each song can be cherished on its own terms. It’s long been seen as the last time that Sparks were in any way tired or lacking in inspiration, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I hope that my interpretation serves as a step towards its well deserved reappraisal.