Five years old this week is Sparks‘ most recent album, the entirely bizarre The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. You really have to put any kind of expectations to one side when listening to this, otherwise you are inevitably going to miss the point.
I was lucky enough to see what was the one and only live performance of this to date, a couple of years ago at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and can testify to its total brilliance. I can’t help but think though, that as a pop album it might be something of a failure.
Sparks are famously obsessed with films, with a discography full of tracks like Tsui Hark, and lyrics about Psycho. For this project, originally a play for Swedish radio, they tell the surrealist story of Ingmar Bergman‘s abduction from a Stockholm cinema to mid-1950s Hollywood, where the film producers try to persuade him to make a movie under their guidance.
Bergman is played by Jonas Malmsjö, with a quite brilliant broody quality, replaced by Finnish actor Peter Franzén for the live show. Neither does any singing, and for much of the piece their contributions are sidelined in favour of Russell Mael‘s vocals, as the story is set up. Which makes for a slightly odd drama, but a very good Sparks release.
The first track that sounds anything like the Sparks of old is Limo Driver (Welcome to Hollywood), in which Russell plays the part of a very lively driver. Mr. Bergman, How Are You? is a quite brilliant moment, in which the lyrics are translated into Swedish by an interpreter, while the backing takes a very traditional Mael turn.
Other highlights include the bizarre I’ve Got to Contact Sweden, which could quite easily appear on any Sparks album. It mixes into a brilliant song, The Studio Commissary, with a very jaunty backing and a chorus that largely consists of fake laughter. Why Do You Take That Tone with Me? features a quite exceptional vocal from the Hollywood starlet, and some typically dramatic Sparks backing.
But the best song of all turns up just as the film enters its final act – We’ve Got to Turn Him ‘Round is an entirely brilliant piece, and could have easily appeared on any recent Sparks album. After that, every track is full of drama, but the standout ones are Escape (both parts) and the lovely Garbo Sings.
Sparks are apparently still working to turn this into a film, so for the second time in their career they have taken a break from releasing new albums. Which is perhaps a shame, but then they do have a back catalogue of several million releases for you to enjoy in the meantime. And this one may be quirkier than most, but it’s still a very enjoyable release indeed.