Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Album (Over)Analysis - Lil' Beethoven by Sparks

Lil' Beethoven is a modern masterpiece and in my opinion the best album of the 00's. I could go on describing the sound of the album especially about the whole innovative orchestral techno aspect but that had been covered to death and I believe that music reviewers such as Mark Prindle John McFerrin, Nick Karn and Evan Lublinski had adequately described the sound of the album pretty well in their respective reviews. All you need to know about what the album sounds like can be found in the above links. What I'll concentrate on is the emotional resonance, introspection and narrative of the album which I believe is the more overlooked elements of this album.

One of Sparks arguable weakness as songwriters is their emotional resonance and hence this album is very much unique in their career, as although they were always witty, insightful, thought provoking and funny, they weren't always touching beyond a few songs per album. While people can make an argument that humour is an emotional resonance in of itself and even though I agree with that attitude, the very best comedies are always simultaneously funny while at the same time touching. Sparks can be accused of lacking this combination on a consistent basis ... until this album.  This is quite an achievement to create that combination considering how minimalistic and repetitive the lyrics are in this album.

So I'll go through the tracks from this album from an "emotional resonance" perspective and my interpretation on why I believe this album to be Sparks most introspective and perhaps even personal album of their career. In fact I interpret this album to be a thematically linked album with a coherent narrative. I believe this album is a concept album about the protagonist trying to be a famous musician, failed to achieve commercial success and the negative consequences of that on his personal relationship. 

"He came home
And instead of hearing the usual drums and bass
He heard
Violins, violins, violins
Senseless violins, senseless violins, senseless violins
Senseless violins, senseless violins, senseless violins
He heard
He heard
Violins, violins
Senseless violins"
From the song "Senseless Violins" from the album "Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins" that foreshadow the huge impact of this song

Is there a grander declaration of artistic vision than this opener? 

I imagine the impact of this song would be greater if people followed Sparks career chronologically and see how their career led to this moment. While I always enjoyed this song, I never was blown away until I started listening to Spark's 80's and 90's albums during the time period where I was listening to Sparks entire career in chronological order. Decades of techno, synth pop, disco, and electronica signify by pulsing bass and drums were dramatically stolen as the Rhythm Thief arrived to take it all away. Now I am a fan of Sparks 80's and 90's work including their electronica output but it was clear that they were stagnating and creating music that was generic (with the exception of Music That You Can Dance To). Generic Sparks is still catchy and well written enough to be some of the most enjoyable music in my music collection (and perhaps all time) but it isn't music that would leave any sort of legacy on pop music. Lil' Beethoven on the other hand does deserves a legacy (whether the powers who control pop music narrative will grant them that place is another issue).

The best way to summarise my emotion when listening to this song is imagining an old, aging and worn down theme park that although enjoyable was clearly past it prime being closed down for renovation. Then there is a grand reopening of the park where it is transformed into an almost magical fantasy land with Russell Mael as the "Rhythm Thief" at the gate, opening it and welcoming you to the brand new world of Sparks. I can not listen to this multilayered strings without the sense of wonder and awe that Sparks created a brand new world, a world not made out of drum machine and pulsing bass but a world crafted by strings and tympani. The impact of Rhythm Thief will become more clear as the album progress.
I actually find this song emotionally devastating to listen to. The song was based on a famous joke by violinist Mischa Elman who was asked for direction “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and replied with “Practice”. This song is the opposite of what Sparks normally do which is finding humour out of macabre or awkward situation and instead finds serious drama out of what is essentially a witty joke. The protagonist of the song has the goal to play in Carnegie Hall and then work incredibly hard "practice man practice" to reach the goal and imagining crowds cheering and applauding in glory driving his determination to succeed. The repetition of the lyrics of the song and the piano riff represents the protagonist "practicing" to reach this goal and hence the music itself is interwoven in the narrative as much as the lyrics which I always react positive to. However despite all the practice and all the effort the goal is just as distant as it was when he first dreamt of success as shown by the line "Still there is no sign of you". The whole idea of a person with a single minded drive dedicating their entire life working towards  their life's dream with no result is such a powerful message to me and I can't help but get teary eyed whenever I listen to this song.

It also gives a good insight to the Mael brother’s state of mind and I believe this song is introspective despite their denials that they don't write autobiographical song. Sure the story doesn't literally match their lives but I'll be really surprise if there isn't a personal emotional connection to the message of the song. I have a feeling with Sparks that although the story isn't real, the emotion is real.

One of the quotes from Daryl Easlea’s “Talent Is An Asset: The Story Of Sparks.” was when the Mael brothers was at the UCLA football game and there was substantial roar from the crowd, Russell Mael said "Wouldn't it be really nice if that was for us?" and it was clear from their surrounding friends that being stars were uppermost in Russell Mael mind.

Throughout the book it was pretty clear that commercial success and being stars were important to them and that their commercial failure really affected them and in some cases they are quite bitter about it. I believe that Carnegie Hall represented Spark's ambition to be pop stars and the song represented their own failure to reach that goal. The added weight to the song is that it naturally follows up "The Rhythm Thief" as that song crafted a brand new unique vision of music to the world, while "How Do We Get To Carnegie Hall?" fatalistically predicts its commercial failure (Lil' Beethoven failed to chart) no matter how much work was put into it. To me this is Sparks’ most resonant song of their career and the best song of the album.

What Are All These Bands Are Angry About
“We’re supposed to be flattered, But you’re in a band and therefore an egotist, so when you see people taking our surface element and — because they are not so stylised — selling more records, you get pissed off. Especially when you know how difficult it is to sustain a career. It’s hard to talk about because you don’t want to come across as bitchy, but I think we’ve written a lot of Pet Shop Boys tunes. ” Ron Mael Q Magazine

Excerpt From: Easlea, Daryl. “Talent Is An Asset: The Story Of Sparks.”

"We once thought about pursuing a class action against the entire New Wave movement. It would be: ‘Sparks versus The New Wave your honour" Russell Mael 2009

Most of the time when this song is discussed, it takes the point of view that this is a satire of all these angry nu-metal groups who have no reason to be angry and making fun of the idea of them trying to "out-anger and out-profane each other". Certainly that is a reasonable interpretation but I feel this song has meaning beyond that.

If you look at lyrics like "Someone's stolen our spotlight” and "Something's stolen our thunder," and "Someone's bounced us from center stage". You could interpret this as those bands reliance on creating controversy by using profanity will always be knocked out of the spotlight by a band even more profane fitting with the previous interpretation. However I like to see this all these bands who were "influenced" by Sparks and took the surface elements of Sparks and stolen their spotlight, bounced Sparks off from the center stage and became more commercially successful then Sparks ever were. Then Russell Mael wonders "What Are All These Bands Are Angry About?" implying that they are the band with legitimate cause to be angry and bitter unlike any of those angry nu-metal groups.

The song finish off with Russell Mael singing "Some might have done it, broken on through" referring that there are artist who succeed commercially and critically and then name checking a few artist who have succeeded. However Sparks concedes that it is something that they will never do “Some might have done what we'll never do".

This song is more than just a dig at "angry bands". In fact this song reveals that the protagonist themselves are part of the "angry bands" as well. I interpret that this song is Sparks’ concession that they will never become the stars that they wanted to be. “How Do We Get To Carnegie Hall” sets off with the protagonist driving to be a music star, this song has the protagonist seeing all his less talented competitors reaching Carnegie Hall by copying them and conceding that Carnegie Hall is beyond his reach. I feel that this interpretation adds a certain poignancy and emotional resonance to the song.

Sure this song could be considered a tongue in cheek joke song following the spirit of  ‘Falling In Love With Myself’. However while I don't doubt that there is a bit of tongue in cheek, I can't help but feel that this song is a beautiful ode and a grand celebration of bachelorhood. The romantic Beach Boys-esque music with lyrics about enjoying the solitude of being single seems an interesting message that the bliss that people associate with marriage can be replicate being single. Unlike "Falling In Love With Myself" I believe there's sincerity to the music due to the general tone of the song as well as reading more about the Mael Brothers attitude towards marriage.

"“Much has been made over the years of the fact that the Mael brothers have never wed; there have been relationships that simply got in the way of their principal concern — making music. “Neither of us is married — we’re too busy having a good time,” Russell said in BAM Magazine in 1983. “On the surface, maybe we look less ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ than the average group, but on the other hand we’re more ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ than those pictures of Led Zeppelin on the farm with their wives and kids, Rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles mean you have a wife and then cheat on her, so rather than do that, we’re honest and stay unmarried. I don’t know anybody in any other band who’s as un-tied down as the two of us. We dislike homey things — for ourselves anyway.”

“We have friends who have families,” Ron told The Word magazine in February 2006. “I get it vicariously; having a traditional family would be a real restriction on what we do.”

So how does this song relate to the concept?

If being committed exclusively to music as shown in "Carnegie Hall", it must impact on personal relationship to be solely driven on the goal. The Mael Brothers are married to their music and married to their goal of reaching "Carnegie Hall" and the idea of having a tradition family is a restriction to that goal. Hence the protagonist is happily single or alternatively "married to himself".

Ride Em' Cowboy
“For anyone who says ‘It’s lonely at the top’, lemme tell you — it’s great at the top”
Russell Mael, 2003

That quote was him reflecting on the time where Sparks temporarily became the pop stars they always wanted to be with their hit single of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us"

This song is a general commentary on the up and downs of life using the analogy of the cowboy riding on the bull and how the highs can quickly and abruptly switch to the lows. Although I admit this is purely my interpretation, I can't help but feel that Sparks own tumultuous career where they were stars one minute and then obscure the next informed the feelings behind this song. That their fleeting commercial and critical success abruptly ends but despite all of that they "Get back on again" trying to reach the heights they once achieved. That despite being a musician is a tumultuous career, Sparks will continue to 'ride em'" due to commitment and passion in being musicians.. Perhaps this is a nice follow up to the likes of “Carnegie Hall” and “What Are All These Bands So Angry About” with them continuing to riding the music business despite knowing that they will never be on centre stage of Carnegie Hall. It's quite a positive message of the idea that knowing you will never succeed commercially in the music industry the protagonist is maintaining his commitment to being a musician due to the passion for music.

Like I mention before, despite some of the funny rhyming that represent the contrast of good going to bad, I do feel there is sincerity behind the songs that I find emotionally moving especially when supported by the dramatic music.

My Baby's Taking Me Home
This song is a great example of music carrying the narrative of the song instead of the lyrics. A song that repeats the lyrics ‘My Baby's Taking Me Home’ for the entire song seems like recipe for disaster. However with gradual alteration in arrangement where it creates a picture of the protagonist with his "baby" walking him home. First there is the jaunty piano line and the ‘bom’ ‘bom’ backing vocals signifying footsteps of the couple. Then the couple is crossing from one neighbourhood to another as demonstrated by the shift in arrangement throughout the song that signifies the changes in the surrounding environment on the route home. When the Ron Mael reads out about the 'chorus singing" the song burst out in absolute joy and ecstasy about the euphoria of being in love with the girl taking him home and probably anticipation to the expected night out with her. That moment creates an almost religious experience whenever I listen to this song.

It's actually an interesting contrast in message to "I Married Myself" on the euphoria of relationship. I guess despite their statement of "marrying myself" and being content with that fact, the "right" girl comes in and changes everything.

Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold.
This song is usually interpreted as a satire of the frustration of being put on hold by a telephone operator. The whole dramatic music that this is a traumatic heartbreaking experience certainly adds to the humour of the song. However since I'm the type of person who likes to find tenuous connection between songs and construct a concept album despite the artist never once claiming it is a concept album, I believe this song is a little bit more than that especially considering it's location in the track list sandwich between "My Baby's Taking Me Home" and "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girl". The reason why it's so devastating being put on hold is that the call-center is that the call-center girl is his girlfriend from the previous song or at least a representation of the protagonist's girlfriend from the previous song giving him mixed signals about the relationship. That’s why there is the desperation in Russell Mael voice throughout the song.

Of course the relationship with the girl that is taking him home who ended up putting him on hold and giving him mixed signals predictably ended in disaster. After all, what does it say that the girl is the one taking him home instead of him being the person taking her home in a nice car like a good provider should do? As demonstrated in the first half of the album, the protagonist is financially poor due to a failed music career and this song brings that to its head.

I consider this song as the revenge of "Throw Her Away And Get A New One". If one of the worst fears for woman in a relationship is that they will be disposed of by their husband for a younger girl when their looks fade. This song takes an opposite perspective of the man being disposed of for a better provider.

While I find this song hilarious especially when Russell Mael starts going on about scientific studies disproving how opposite attracts and get into neurotic detail in this story. The song transition to the protagonist confessing to his personal connection to this phenomenon have bitterness dripping from those lines and is terrific acting by Russell Mael and I can't help but feel a lot of sympathy to the character especially when the final "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" at the end that calls back the intro sounds like a lament.  As funny as the song is, the song is also a tragedy mixing comedy and drama perfectly.

The album ends in a fairly funny satire of rich white guys pretending to be black and it's a nice lighthearted end to the album. However some people reading this may wonder how this connects to the "concept" and narrative of the album I was spruiking about.

The whole "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" was a song about being burnt by a gold-digging woman. The protagonist had a more idealistic view on relationship and I can only assume that this was a relationship where the girl was attracted to his "artistic" nature. However the protagonist was struggling to make ends meet he was disposed of for a richer guy which shattered his core and he realised that "things would have turned out differently" if he was more wealthy.

So the protagonist gave up his music career and focus on a steady career and succeeded. Got himself a nice suburban home, got a girlfriend or "suburban 'ho" right by his side who has no intention of leaving him for a better provider as he is financially secure as he is rich enough to have someone cleaning his pool and now has an upper class Oxford and Cambridge mentality.

This is a logical but humorous connection to him using "rapping" language as well. He ended up relating to the lyrics of rappers where gold-digging women is often a topic of that genre of music (The Mael brother are big fans of rap music as well so I can't help but think there is a little bit of 'Suburban Homeboy' in them as well). Where he openly called his partner a "suburban 'ho'" because he realised that the partner is with him due to his new-found wealth and hence the relationship is a transfer of money from him to his partner in exchange for sexual relationship. Essentially the protagonist found solace in the message of rap music that drives his desire towards economic security that led him to be a ‘Suburban Homeboy’.

I feel is that this is an interesting and inventive ending capping up the themes of the album. After all the first half of the album goes on about the protagonist determination to becoming a music star and yet failing but still decide to pursue it regardless. The second half focuses on the negative consequences on his personal relationship because of that choice.

The question resulting that is to ask whether the protagonist/Sparks regretted the choice?

The answer at the end of this album is an overwhelming no due to the complete mockery of the alternative choice, the stylistic differences of Suburban Homeboy from the rest of the album (which some people have pointed out that it seems out of place as it has nothing in common with earlier songs in the album) and the presence of “The Rhythm Thief” as the opening track.

At the end of "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" the protagonist realised that money was important and there was two pathways he could have taken. That the protagonist could have gotten a "real job" in a safe career and live a regular suburban lifestyle as depicted in "Suburban Homeboy" or he could continue his career as a poor musician who still just as motivated in creating innovative, intelligent and creative music without a care for commercial success that the protagonist desired in the past. "The Rhythm Thief" the perfect representation of that as thief stole the pulsing bass and drums that define the band for the last 20 years to create this brand new genre of music without consideration whether it would sell or not.

I like to believe that “The Rhythm Thief” was the final end product of the story where the protagonist took the high road knowing full well the consequences of that decision. The subsequent songs on Lil' Beethoven was the preceding plot explaining the roads that that led to "The Rhythm Thief" with "Suburban Homeboy" as a fake funny alternate ending.

I interpret Suburban Homeboy to be a mock ending of a parallel universe where Sparks gave up being musicians and took the boring option instead of trying to be successful musicians. The protagonist sold out and now lives in a rich neighbourhood but tries to remain hip and cool and relevant like he was still the struggling poor musician in the past. This ending is essentially Sparks telling the audience that they could have gave up and become "Surburban Homeboy" but instead they became "The Rhythm Thief". Aren't I'm grateful they took that choice.

Now people may ask why I find this message to be so powerful?

Anyone who has ever had any outlandish dream as a kid to be famous musician, sportstar, millionaire, leader of the country etc, most people who have those fantasy will reach a situation where they realised that they will never fulfil their dream either due to various reasons and then give up and get a "real job".

Lil' Beethoven was the album that shows Sparks acceptance that they will never be superstars they originally dream but then conclude it doesn't matter because being musician is more important.

That's what makes Surburban Homeboy and interesting ending of the album, it brings the alternate reality where Sparks face with commercial failure and say I give up, i'm just going to live a comfortable middle class existence. The vast majority of musicians when face the reality that their dreams was unrealistic will ended up becoming the "Suburban Homeboy". However the album is about Sparks maintaining their passion in music despite knowing they will never reach the heights as demonstrated in "Ride Em Cowboy" where despite the lows that followed their highs, Sparks will always "get back on again'

To me as someone who decided to "give up" being a musician, I look at Sparks "get back on again" to be absolutely admirable. So many bands break up when they no longer financially viable and out of popular consciousness and then some only reform when they become relevant again. I don't have a problem with that as it's perfectly understandable that people have to make a living

Nevertheless, this album symbolises Sparks longevity where they continue for over 40 years in relative obscurity. The longevity could only be due to commitment and passion to music that is independent of being popular where Sparks resisted the urge to become "Suburban Homeboy". In a way this album encapsulates the entire career of Sparks where it seems like every preceding album culminated to this moment. I find this story absolutely admirable and perhaps almost inspirational. If only I had that same degree of single mindedness passion and commitment to music as they have.


This concludes a complete masterpiece of an album and is a serious contender to being Sparks’ best album as it's really a toss up between this and “Kimono My House” for me personally. Ron Mael even self-described it as his “career-defining opus” and who am I to argue with him about that? What makes this album unique is that it's the only album of Sparks’ career that is emotionally resonant and the only album that combines their sense of humour with drama. So while the other albums of the trilogy may have arguable claims of being superior to “Lil' Beethoven” such as “Hello Young Lovers” having more thicker and more interesting arrangement especially with the introduction of rock instruments or “Exotic Creatures From The Deep” being more catchy and melodic, however Lil' Beethoven reigns supreme over all of those album because it's the album that strikes my emotional centre as well as being an inventive, unique and innovative album.

The only weakness is that it technically contradicts one of my criteria of judging music which is "Pacing" due to some repetition and that there are plenty of albums out there that are more melodic than Lil’ Beethoven. Nevertheless those "weakness" never bothered me at all and in fact they turn it to strength at times. So this album essentially challenges me to my very core by questioning the whole validity of my criteria of judging music. For that achievement, it’s an essential must-buy masterpiece.

PS: Now I'll just say that all of my interpretation on Lil' Beethoven is purely my own personal interpretation and it is me trying to connect snippets and quotes from the Mael brother's  personal life and attitudes and transfer them over the lyrics of the song. I'm fully aware that it's quite possible that the Mael Brother's never intended the song to mean this and I don't want to put words in their mouth. However since there is no "word of god" statement from the creators, my interpretation is just as valid as anyone else.

PSS: Funny enough the beginning of Dick Around from "Hello Young Lovers" is about a high achiever that breaks up with his girlfriend and no longer is interested in pursuing the corporate career which seems to directly follow the narrative of ‘Suburban Homeboy’ which seems to match my opinion that Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures From The Deep are a trilogy of albums. Hmm... perhaps another few TL:DR essays analysing the next two albums :)

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