Sparks: What does it all mean?
I'm the kind of person that pores over the lyrics of each new Sparks release, looking for pearls of wisdom and easter eggs. New album A steady drip, drip, drip does not disappoint - lyrically or on any other front. Ron Mael has always been master of the subtext, and here he might have revealed that they've been working on something special over many years. If searching for greater meaning in Sparks’ music and lyrics isn’t for you then please stop here. Otherwise, I hope that this helps bring you even more enjoyment from these songs.
Sparks have always been self-referential, revisiting old themes and building on ideas. Examples are songs about marrying yourself, girls from foreign countries and striving for great acclaim. If you listen to ‘A steady drip, drip, drip’ with this in mind there are interesting ways to interpret these songs.
Nothing travels faster than the speed of light talks about scientific demonstrations in which people set out rules that can’t be broken. The chorus makes it clear that this is wrong. Rules can be broken, which is something that Sparks always strive to do in their music. They take great pride in it. The imagery of these lyrics are from the age of discovery, and the singer is yearning to be part of that.
“Festival seating for the forum on new physics now
Marvellous breakthroughs that create a show
...I know I need to go”
It wasn’t just science that was making breakthroughs back then, there was also the arts. Musical theory had to be studied and proven in much the same way as the theory of gravity or the speed of light. This went way beyond time signatures and scales, it looked at meaning in music. It studied how and why music can both influence and reflect human emotion, and what meaning you could take from or put into music.
At the forefront of this was Igor Stravinsky, already a big presence on this album. Very much an academic, he would develop technical innovations in his music and discuss them at length in publications, even lecturing at Harvard. I believe that Sparks have modelled themselves on this man in many ways.
A big similarity is the changing face of Stravinsky’s compositions, all while retaining a distinctive essential identity, very much like Sparks. He would place a motif into different guises throughout a composition (“my baby’s taking me home…”). He was fascinated with ordering and heightening the ingredients of the actual world (“at first she said, your call is very important to us’”). He was a man that didn’t break rules, he invented new ones.
“Nothing travels faster than the speed of light’ they’ll tell you,
but what they’re telling you is merely wrong”
So the joke here is that if Ron was at that “physics’ forum then he’d have something big to contribute. A breakthrough. But what if this isn’t a joke? For the end of the song, consider that Sparks’ typical working day has Ron drive to the studio in Russell’s house.
“Driving to you, there’s no space and no time
Driving to you there’s a clear grand design”
So what is the grand design? Is it a simple conceit, a metaphor for a song, or is it something bigger? The one thing that we all agree on with Sparks is that they don’t lack ambition or drive. Who else could have performed something like 21x21 after all?
There are other hints on the album. One for the ages is about a quiet office worker who knows that he’s working on something that will reveal him as a genius. Left out in the cold is about a winter-gear researcher who is content to do all the hard work while others reap the benefits. A great metaphor for the long list of ‘80s bands who charted by following Sparks’ template.
There’s also the prominent “what does it all mean?” in I’m toast.
Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all, but I’m going to try to convince you otherwise. This relates to Sparks gift for crafting songs that can be interpreted in several ways.
I believe that they are trying to advance musical thought in the same was as Stravinsky, and if you go back to Balls with all of this in mind then it sounds very different. It’s all part of the same story.
Balls (2000) is not a well loved album, but I’m going to make the case that it was maybe their greatest creative breakthrough.
After 1994's When do I get to sing "My Way” and Gratuitous Sax failed to sell, the Maels were asked to re-record their hits for German market. Plagarism performed even worse than its predecessor, so on returning the studio they weren’t allowed to follow their instincts. Instead the record label demanded hits leading them to produce a harder electronic sound.
If you’re looking for songs that could reference the band’s situation directly then these are all over this album. The calm before the storm is a stand-out track.
“It's the calm before the storm,
Something big is coming soon,
Something that will change your tune”
Could it be that they knew the direction that they were heading in? This is likely. It mentions the false sense of security of the record deal being shown to be a forgery. The verses have the feeling of resignation in the air:
“The kind of day when nothing hits the fan
The kind of day when music means Chopin”
But it’s the bridge of the song where the message is clearest:
“Something's about to break, but is isn't clear
(Not enough was going on, oh no)”
This something isn’t clear because they haven’t been given the chance to develop these ideas yet, so they proceed to do this right here, in this moment. The beats disappear and in come stacks of vocals and bold orchestral elements, an in-development mini Lil Beethoven sat in the middle of a pop song that follows the label's remit. It’s as if they’re conducting research.
There’s lots more to take from this section:
“Something's about to break, but is 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? (Not enough was going on, oh yeah)”
The “oh no” reaction to “not enough was going” switches to an “oh yes”. For something to cheer, “not enough going on” could mean record sales, a good thing if this lack of success buys them creative freedom from their label. As for something to fear, it could be the monumental task that they’ve set themselves.
Judging by responses to previous posts, people just don’t see Sparks to be writing about their own lives and joint career, and the idea of a bigger picture between songs is a wild theory, but this idea is explained perfectly in the song Scheherazade.
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 as well as 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.
Stories are what Sparks trade in, and this is a concept that they use. The Rhythm Thief is a direct continuation of ‘The calm before the storm’. ‘Balls’ and ‘Lil Beethoven’ are two sides of the same story, just like Scheherazade picking up the mantle the next night. They start new tales that later re-emerge in the subtext of other seemingly self-contained songs. This is the promise that they make in the closing line of the song:
“Scheherazade, I won't kill you”
I’ve discussed only two songs from ‘Balls’, so you might be forgiven for thinking these are isolated moments on the album, but it’s to be found in almost every song.
In ‘More than a sex machine’ they reference coming to fame in the 1970s and their most recent failed comeback:
“I earned my reputation
Then, when it was expected
Now, there's a new equation
Who wouldn't feel dejected?”
Then later, they suggest that they were blocked from going in a more artistic direction by a nervous record company:
“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, is ride baby ride”
"Ride baby ride" is referenced again on Ride ‘em Cowboy, both songs being about hard times with the label (amongst other things).
There are other double meanings. Having “reservations” for Aeroflot could reference Stravinsky’s home country, and the lyrics of ’Scheherazade’ tie to some of his musical philosophies. Bullet train is a metaphor for Sparks as a musical entity and The Angels is about the record label, who are soon to realise what they’ve lost in letting Sparks go.
There's a lot here that reflects their career at that point, and also clues for parts of the story that we don't know (but may find out in Edgar Wright's upcoming documentary). A few songs seem to suggest that the Mael Brothers were planning this album as a way out of their record contract. They no doubt had something like 'Lil Beethoven' in mind, but that's not the type of album that you can compromise on. It needs full creative freedom - all or nothing.
They chose nothing, no hint of the sound that characterised later albums other than that moment in 'The Calm before the Storm'. They delivered an album that perfectly aligned to the record label's remit instead of following their instinct. But rather than compromising their art they applied all of the philosophies that they've followed to this day, and made a secret concept album (or at least the first half of one).
If it had been a success then maybe they would have made a fourth album with the label and the fight would have continued. This bold move is what the title track is referring to. This takes balls.
The story continues in Part 2, which is all about how Lil' Beethoven fits into all of this.