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Sparks - In Outer Space CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

2.83 | 22 ratings

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3 stars I can't help but think that getting pegged as a novelty act in the previous couple of albums was something that bothered Ron and Russell, because this album (self-produced after the band parted ways with Reinhold Mack) veers strongly away from that approach. The band is still aspiring to sound witty, but this wit is manifested in a much drier and more subtle way than in the last couple of albums, where it often seemed like the band was trying to scream out "LOOK AT US WE'RE SO CLEVER!!!" The band has shifted its style firmly into contemporary synth pop (reducing the role of the guitar to much less than it had been on the previous couple of albums), and while this decision certainly had the potential to go badly (and it soon would), this album makes it seem like this kind of approach was perfect for the band at this point. Honestly, this shouldn't be shocking; just like with Heaven, this approach strips the band down to its essence (keyboards, snide lyrics and great vocal melodies), and while none of these aspects are firing on all cylinders quite like they were on Heaven, the result sounds, if nothing else, very competent.

Of course, making such a hard turn away from the novelty route had its drawbacks, as well. The band's best 70s work showed the band working within an area of ambiguity regarding the question of whether they were a novelty band or not; the ability to sing such ridiculous lyrics and flash such ridiculous ideas while delivering them in such a dry way that you didn't necessarily realize on first pass just how ridiculous they were was one of their most important talents. Whomp and Angst had spoiled the balance by simplifying the music (especially in the rhythm section) while overly accentuating how silly some of the lyrical ideas were. Space, on the other hand, makes the music less gimmicky but also makes it less fun, and this could be considered to spoil the balance just as much as those albums did. At least on Heaven, despite all of the disco-pop trimmings, it often seemed like Ron was trolling the intended audience with the lyrics, whereas the lyrics on this album are at best moderately clever but never intricate or subversive in the way they'd been on much of that album (or in previous albums). The point of all of this is that, while the band's stylistic tradeoff was a net positive in the short term, it didn't really fix the fundamental problems of the band at this point, and it's not shocking that things started to go so wrong on the next album.

Still, the future is the future, and the present is the present, and the present is pretty good. The big hit of the album was the opening "Cool Places," an up-tempo duet with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's, and while I felt a little uncomfortable at first about how normal it sounded, I soon got over it. The vocal melody and instrumental parts (pretty much consisting only of keyboards and drums) are very crisp, for lack of a better term, and the lyrics are a great example of the band's new desire to write clever lyrics without beating the listener over the head with how clever they are. Sample lyric: "I wanna go where nobody's a fool/And no one says, "Uh, hey girl, need a light?" The following "Popularity" didn't have the benefit of having a guest appearance from a relatively famous person, but it's built around the same general approach and isn't much worse. The lyrics look really stupid on the surface, but it seems like their intent is to expose the vapidity of seeking for popularity for its own sake, much the same way that "Cool Places" goes after seeking coolness for its own sake. "What a night, we all drive into town/Where we'll park our cars, and meet the rest of our friends/At a place that's called, I forget what it's called/But it's really great, and all our friends will be there."

Amongst the remaining eight tracks, a couple are relatively gentle and earnest, while the others tend to have energy and/or snark fueling them to some degree. The lyrics to "Please, Baby, Please" are banal beyond saving, but there's a beauty in the interaction of the vocal melody with the nagging synth chords that makes the song worth it. "Lucky Me, Lucky You" (another duet with Jane Wiedlin) passed me by the first few times I listened to the album, but I've come around to it, largely because of the interesting topic (about two people finding love because they crashed on an island together, and mulling over what will happen if they're rescued), but also because it's novel to hear something so oddly touching on a Sparks album.

Among the remaining tracks, the only one to be fueled primarily by energy is "Praying for a Party," which I end up liking for a lot of the same reasons that I like "I Predict" from Angst. It has a monotonous pounding beat, yes, but I like the alternation between the layered Russells, the solo Russell and the humming Russell, so it can stick around on my iPod. The track that is fueled primarily by snark is the closing "Dance Godammit," a slow robotic number in which Russell, in a completely emotionless way, tells his feet and body to dance. If ever a song could make dancing sound like a joyless exercise akin to feeding yourself cauliflower, this is the one. "I get scared when I'm alone/So I don't stay alone/I like clubs/I like girls/I like music/And that's it/Dance Godammit/Dance Godammit."

The other four are all, to varying degrees, fueled by both energy and snark. "All You Ever Think About is Sex" treats sex in the same way "Dance Godammit" treats dance, as a joyless compulsion that's endlessly consumed but never to the point of fulfilment. It's not the most inventive music ever written, but the steady music (aside from a slower introduction) works perfectly with the lyrics. "Rockin' Girls" is synth-based (with quiet guitar once the song picks up steam) faux-rockabilly with moderately clever lyrics: the oft-quoted "And you're the only girl I've ever met who hates 'Hey Jude'/Maybe that's the reason I'm so in love you" is a gem, but the rest is decent as well. "I Wish I Looked A Little Better" is driven forward by the album's best synth part, and the lyrics, about looking irredeemably terrible, are a hoot. And finally, "A Fun Bunch of Guys From Outer Space" (which says the band is "here to infiltrate and get a tan") is a little more silly lyrically than is the norm for this album, but it ends up fitting for largely that reason, and it helps explain why the album cover features Ron covered in a cream pie.

No, this isn't a great album, and truth be told it isn't even that much better than Whomp or Angst. It is, however, the closest thing to a "last gasp" before the band's sound completely fell apart (it would come back together, but much later), and it deserves respect as such. If you feel the overwhelming need to dive into 80s Sparks, this is the place to start.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |


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