Both brilliant and frustrating, Hello Young Lovers, the 20th album from Sparks, ex-pat brothers Ron and Russell Mael, is the kind of album that, for better or worse, demands a strong reaction. The easy out for detractors, as has been the case for much of Sparks’ career, is that the songs on Hello Young Lovers are so ironic, so overbearingly arch, that they collapse without much outside pressure. Tracks like catchy first single “Perfume,” reducing as it does to a recitation of recognizable name brands (like Black-Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” but stupid on purpose), and the wondrously titled “(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country,” taking its melody from an overhaul of “The Star Spangled Banner,” give a degree of credence to that argument. As premises for songs go, they’re funny enough, but they’re also undeniably one-note.
While the album boasts no shortage of jaw-dropping throwaway lines (“I see you crying/But I’m not buying your Meryl Streep mimicry/It’s misdirected/Your voice inflected for maximum sympathy” on “Waterproof,” to pick perhaps the most inspired), the danger in writing songs about next to nothing is that, before long, the process becomes an exercise in autoconsumption, navel-gazing for the sake of navel-gazing. In that way, Hello Young Lovers plays like music’s version of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling or the final episode of Seinfeld. The album opener “Dick Around” (“All I do now is dick around” sounds less like a hook on repeat listens than something of a mission statement for the album) and, later, “Rock Rock Rock” (which talks of “soft passages” getting an artist “into trouble” by implying a “faux respectability,” a “measure of weakness,” and “a certain level of maturity”), and “Metaphor” make it clear that the Mael Bros. are entirely aware of how irony constrains their songs’ impact.
What makes Hello Young Lovers a more interesting album than many pop purists might give it credit for is how Sparks’ anti-pop approach to song structure and instrumentation give their compositions both a weight and a replay value that they wouldn’t otherwise have. “Dick Around,” for instance, shifts wildly in both meter and tempo over the course of its seven minutes, with choral harmony arrangements that are almost Baroque in their intricacy. Purely in terms of its music, Hello Young Lovers approaches a kind of genius that precious few current acts could hope to replicate, combining elements of opera, electronica, and The Darkness’s brand of parody-metal. And, when approached with the right mindset, that technical prowess is enough to excuse the album’s overall empty-headedness.