Sparks: Lincoln Hall, 11/7/13

Mon Nov 11 2013

It’s hard to put a finger on why Sparks, as an entity, exists. How has this pair of oddballs been able to sustain a career in music? I think of them as similar in a sense to The Residents, in that they’re so fringe and unique that no one would dream of emulating them because they’ve already cornered the market on people who could possibly enjoy their style, yet they’ve been an unsung influence on countless artists who came after them. But during Sparks’ performance Thursday night at Lincoln Hall, I realized that what I’ve been liking all these years isn’t really what they are. Now that I grasp their actual intent (I think), I like them a lot more.
It’s sort of like my long-term arc of appreciation for Beefheart. It took years of listening before I had any inkling that he was more than a bizarre novelty act. Then came an understanding of what was going on musically, which, now that I think about it, probably made that leap a lot more attainable where Sparks were concerned. The stuff of theirs that grabbed me was the complex, metal-tinged material (i.e., the Mike Patton collaborations first and foremost), which was right up my weirdo-prog alley. I didn’t need to grok Beefheart’s or Sparks’ lyrics to dig what they were doing.

That lyrical dimension—actually, dimensions would be more accurate—is what finally dawned on me at the Sparks show. I remember the day I set about memorizing the lyrics to Beefheart’s “Orange Claw Hammer” as a major turning point; this was not just some iconoclastic crackpot trying to be grotesque. This was a bluesman telling a desperately tragic tale that the world was scarcely even ready to accept the beauty of in 1969. It might even have been an idealistic allegory for the death of racism; who knows? It was a lot deeper than my teenaged titillation could account for, “wooden tits on the goddess” notwithstanding.

So while it might be a while before I penetrate the layers of irony in “Something For The Girl With Everything” (which Sparks did not play) or “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (which they did), it was the cheerful venom of “Suburban Homeboy” that bowled me over. On its surface, sung impressively by the 65-year-old Russell Mael, it struck me initially as a hopelessly awkward lampoon, but it dawned on me halfway through that it’s actually a profoundly sad and valid commentary on, well, some people I know, and an awful lot of people in the United States. Then gradually, the layers of irony peeled away from “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” and “Number One Song In Heaven”, until all that was left were the sincere theatrics and naked emotion of two performers who actually HAVE done everything THEIR way the whole time, and here they were, take ‘em or leave ‘em.

I’ll take ‘em. By that point in the evening, Russell’s affable showbiz charm, offset by his brother Ron’s stern scowl behind his indelible synth melodies, had shifted my impression from slightly weirded out to completely under their spell. The music morphed in my mind from bare-bones, too-clever show tunes into delightfully subversive pop. Sparks were interesting to me before; by the encore, they were brilliant. I always thought they’d be phony and cold, but their humanity shone so clearly through this performance that I honestly bought into every emotion I’d previously assumed to be contrived. Despite what my rural upbringing may have taught me, sophistication needn’t be intrinsically heartless after all.

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