Review Summary: Glam rock songs jam-packed with creativity and a divisive yet brilliant sound Sparks
is a band that defies easy classification – ever the ambitious weirdos, they have managed to jump between glam rock, disco, club-friendly house music and orchestral art music in a career spanning over 50 years. Whatever genre they decide to inhabit, there are two constants – Russell Mael’s confounding falsetto (more at home in an opera than on a rock record), and his brother Ron’s witty yet mile-a-minute lyricism and vibrant keyboards. Propaganda, released in 1974 – mere months after breaking out with “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us” from their previous record, makes the case for Sparks as a band that should be celebrated both for their style as well as their substance.
Stylistically, Sparks is immediately a band which you either find amusing on the surface or incredibly irritating – Russell’s stratospheric vocals sound like little else in rock music, and Ron’s steely stare and Hitler-mimicking mustache are uncomfortable once you’ve seen them in any setting. However, it’s exactly this sense of un-conventionalism that makes Propaganda so interesting to hear. Right out of the gate, the album leads off with a strong A-side with songs at tempos ranging from moderately energetic to rave-ups with rapid-fire ideas. The most aggressive, joyous ode to divorce can be found on the playful “B.C.”, and “Reinforcements”’ melody is infectious despite the song’s theme of conflict and amusing wordplay (I’m left to wonder if the narrator needing a “strong rear guard” suggests something more intimate).
“Something for the Girl with Everything” sums up all of these record’s charms in two of the most manic, hyperactive minutes of music I’ve ever heard committed to tape (if there is one song that I’d suggest listening to in determining if this record is right for you, “Something” would be the clear favorite). The album does dip in quality a bit towards the end, with “Achoo” and “Who Don’t Like Kids” being my two least-favorite songs on the album. However, “Bon Voyage” is a memorable closer – pairing a despairing image of the apocalypse with dramatic, Queen-esque theatrical flair.
Unfortunately, Propaganda never got as much attention as it deserved, yet it can be seen as an influence on many synthpop bands of the 1980s and a number of rock bands afterwards (in particular, Erasure took noticeable inspiration from Ron and Russell’s constrasting image and distilled the manic sounds of Sparks into a more accessible format). Fortunately, the album sounds both of its time sonically yet unbound from the era in terms of creativity, making it an excellent choice to revisit. If you’re looking for something different, just left-of-center enough to be engaging without being “difficult”, this album should be a good contender for what to listen to next.