With so many albums under their belts, it would be difficult to pick a favourite by Sparks, but I don’t think many would choose their 2000 album Balls. It’s fifteen years old this week though, and positively bristling with potential hit singles, so it’s definitely worth listening again.
The opening track, also the title track, is brusque and forceful, with its repeated chorus of “balls,” and it is actually pretty funny too. There’s definitely something to it – the chanted lyrics are catchy, and the acid bass that bobbles along in the background is great – but it’s not the most melodic song ever.
Contrast this with the first single More Than a Sex Machine, which comes next. Released late the preceding year, it was their only single for that particular record company, leaving them with a somewhat drawn out process to get the album released. But it’s absolutely magnificent, and really deserved to be an enormous hit. Its downfall? Perhaps only that it ought to have been a hit in about 1995, rather than in the twenty-first century.
Sparks had, by 2000, firmly entered the world of cult music. With nearly three decades in the music business already, they had only ever managed a handful of hits in each country. Sadly this album wouldn’t add to their achievements, but it did at least come in rather nice colourful packaging.
Scheherazade comes next, a lovely analogue-sounding song, with plucked string pads and wobby synth sounds accompanying a particularly nice vocal. If you view this album as a continuation of 1995’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, which would not be unfair, this piece would be a prime example of how the two releases fit together.
This is a Sparks album though, so there are always the sillier moments, of which Aeroflot is a great example. It’s pretty daft, but as is so often the case it’s also rather compelling. It’s not quite The Calm Before the Storm though, which is surely the finest song on Balls. Every bit as good as anything on the charts at the time, it entirely failed to make any impact at all, but it’s quite brilliant.
How to Get Your Ass Kicked (in which, perhaps in a concession to their huge European audience, they actually pronounce the word as “arse”) is a fun, but ultimately not entirely groundbreaking piece, while Bullet Train is an entertaining chanted track honouring the Japanese rail system. As with the opener, the latter struggles a little with melody, but otherwise there’s no shortage of ideas.
My favourite moment probably comes with It’s a Knockoff, which pulls together some remarkably silly lyrics with a very catchy melody, resulting in a classic Sparks song. Irreplaceable and It’s Educational, which follow, both have their moments of daftness too, and both fit into the duo’s cannon perfectly.
The closing track is The Angels, the festive single version of which saw the duo collaborate with their erstwhile producer Tony Visconti, and this album version is, to the best of my knowledge, the only example of Sparks‘ use of the F-bomb, which comes as something of a surprise. Despite that, it’s a lovely song, and a great way to close the album. Sixteen or seventeen albums on, the Mael brothers were still going strong.
The essential version of Balls is probably this 2008 reissue, which was released directly through the band’s own record label.