Review: Sparks In Outer Space

Who don’t love Sparks?  I suppose the folks who don’t know who Sparks are might not love Sparks, but that’s only because of plum ignorance.  But REST EASY, reader — we’re here to set you straight by reviewing ALL the Sparks records — and not just by one, but TWO (and maybe occasionally MORE!) Die-Hard Sparks Fan Reviewers.  We shall be your guide into the wonderful world of Mael.  Check it out!
Rev. Syung Myung Me:  I think this was the first Sparks record I ever heard.  Aila introduced me to Sparks, and for that I’m forever grateful…. even if initially, I was less so.  It took me a while to get Sparks — it was her last-ditch effort of the Lil’ Beethoven Live in Stockholm DVD that made everything click.   I was a bit interested in this initially because David Kendrick drummed for Sparks for a while, and he was the second drummer in DEVO.  (Or, third, I suppose — Jim Mothersbaugh drummed before Alan did, but that was in the real, real early days.)

ANYWAY:  Even though In Outer Space is probably the album that most Americans think of when they think of Sparks (or, um, IF they think of Sparks) — due to the success of “Cool Places” featuring Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos (and my rock-star-crush dreams), it’s one of the weaker albums.  There’re some great songs — “Popularity”, “All You Ever Think About Is Sex” and “Lucky Me, Lucky You” (also with Jane), a lot of them don’t quite seem to hit the sweet spot as on the previous two records.  “Prayin’ for a Party” and “Dance Godammit” tend to be songs that end up leaving my brain as soon as they’re done, and they’re not the only ones on this album.  It’s not a BAD album, but Sparks, and this lineup in particular, are capable of delivering so much more.  I think it’s tempting for a lot of Americans to want to start with this one as it’s got the hit on it, but honestly — I’d recommend starting with Whomp That Sucker or Angst in my Pants instead.  Those albums have the same general sound as this one, but are consistently great.

Aila:Sparks In Outer Space is not the best Sparks album.” That’s a statement I imagine a lot of Sparks fans would endorse, and I can’t honestly disagree. But it is the first Sparks album I heard, and there’s something about it I love to an almost irrational extent.

Sometime around 1993 (a decade after it was released), I picked up this album in a used record store’s bargain bin. I think it cost me twenty-five cents. I didn’t know anything about Sparks, and it was probably the ridiculous pie-in-the-face cover image that drew me in. When I listened to it, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This had to be the most over-the-top music I had ever heard. I quickly determined that it must have been intended as satire, something which I still believe (although it ultimately doesn’t really matter). Sparks had taken the glossy, plastic-sounding music made by a few bands around this time (most notably DEVO), and raised it several levels to a plateau of absurdity.

This is not an album filled with great songs, although it does have a few that I consider amongst the best of Sparks. The musical style is a sort of ultra-plastic synthpop. The opening song, “Cool Places,” which was bizarrely something of a hit, introduces the album with a full dose of the sonic and lyrical cheese that endures throughout the entire record. This is a very hammy, high-paced duet between Russell Mael and Jane Wiedlin, whose squeaky, stylized vocals are frankly kind of awful. The other Mael-Wiedlin duet on the album, “Lucky Me Lucky You,” is probably my favorite of the two, but they are both very ridiculous songs which are enjoyable if listened to in that context. The second song on the album, “Popularity,” is one of my favorite Sparks songs of all time. It’s clearly satirical, deadpan lyrics perfectly match with one of the more musically subdued tracks on the record. As for the other songs, the more outrageous they are, the better they tend to work. Songs like “All You Ever Think About Is Sex” and “Please Baby Please” are alright, but if anything, they are a little too normal for this album. I prefer the absurd ‘party gospel’ of “Prayin’ For a Party,” the lyrically-as-titled “I Wish I Looked A Little Better,” or the bizarrely stupid “A Fun Bunch Of Guys From Outer Space.” These are hilarious songs, and this is probably the funniest Sparks album overall (I know Sparks aren’t a comedy act, but humor has always been a strength). The closing song, “Dance Godammit,” is a bit subdued compared to what came before, but it’s another of my favorites, one that strangely calls to mind square dancing merged with early-to-mid 80s dance music (granted, the square dancing link might be in my mind only).

I love Sparks in pretty much all their incarnations, and while they made several records that are technically better than Sparks In Outer Space, this is the one that first turned me onto them. I’m sure it can be enjoyed on different levels, but the switch that always goes off in my brain when I hear this one is the same as when I watch a “so bad it’s good” kind of movie. Basically, this is the Troll 2 of albums. By which I mean it’s something of a masterpiece. And not really in an ironic way, either – it can, and should be enjoyed on it’s own terms. This is not one of the best Sparks albums, but it’s a masterpiece anyway.

Joey Migeed: Okay, so it’s 1983 and synthesizers have decidedly taken over pop music. Say, you happen to be Ron Mael, keyboardist and lead songwriter of Sparks. You’ve been pretty reliant on synthesizers in your own music as of late, but now it’s time to see what happens when you throw out everything BUT the synthesizer and the drum machine. That’s all the public’s interested in right now. And don’t forget to put a lot of that trademark Sparks wit and irony into the lyrics. You can do it. Come back when you have an album finished.

That conversation, which decidedly did not take place back in the day between Ron Mael and somebody else (God, maybe?) is how I like to pretend In Outer Space was conceptualized. We all know that this is the album with “Cool Places” on it; the biggest hit single that Sparks ever had in North America. Because of that, it’s tempting to look at this album as a hits-plus-filler deal, but that would be a hasty and rather ignorant declaration. What lurks on this record besides “Cool Places” is a well-done collection of straight-up 1980’s synthpop tunes, most of them with the obligatory Sparks twist.

Throughout these ten songs, Sparks cover the gamut of 80’s pop music topics and cliches, written during the heyday of synthpop and new wave without the benefit of hindsight (therefore demonstrating how astute and observant the Maels were of the contemporary music scene). It’s all here–parties, getting laid, being cooler now, fantasies of outer space, and dancing, goddamn it. To the Maels, this is what the early 1980’s were all about, for better or for worse. What keeps me coming back for more, and searching for deeper meaning within the cold, materialistic lyrics and glossy, somewhat mindless instrumentation is the incredibly thin line between satire and straightforward pop that these songs sit upon. With a good Sparks album, you almost never know what’s part of the joke and what’s for real until you’ve given it a serious listen. In Outer Space is no exception.

Here’s my opinion: In Outer Space appears to be nothing less than a finely-crafted satire of early 80’s synthpop records; this is why it succeeds. The first clue is the album cover itself. Russell and Ron stand side-by-side against a nondescript gray backdrop, clad in jet-black turtlenecks and jackets. How many 1980’s album covers can you recall following this exact blueprint? Generic Band, dressed sharply, is photographed in an abstract setting with stoic expressions on their faces. But of course, on this cover, there’s one feature that sticks out like a sore thumb and is decidedly not part of the usual formula. Even before the music of In Outer Space begins, Sparks kick off the satire with a loud splat.

The cover photo is only the first indication that almost nothing here is what it appears to be. So much music of the 1980’s was to be taken at face value; to be immediately disposed of. In Outer Space wants you to instantly forget it as soon as it’s over–it aspires to appear even more lightweight and forgettable than the music it disembowels. If you disobey, and decide to come back for more, the true nature of the songs reveal themselves. “Popularity” and “Lucky Me Lucky You” aren’t the synthpop drivel they appear to be–the former a warning against having a materialistic and vapid social life, and the latter an indictment of couples who couldn’t care less about each other. This is the kind of social commentary that very few other pop musicians of the era were bothering to make.

“All You Ever Think About is Sex” (presented here in a version noticeably inferior to the 7” single edit) is written from the point of view of a person who’s not actually concerned about his partner’s bizarre and out-of-control sexual proclivities; he enjoys them and willingly partakes, despite bemoaning his situation at the end of the song (“Fact is, we’re too busy to love each other much.”) Even “Cool Places”, with its mindless and self-consciously insipid lyrics (“It’s obvious we’re cooler now, cooler now, cool, cool, cool!”) can hardly be mistaken for anything else besides a parody of the generic synthpop template; a vicious deconstruction of the period hit single that also makes a statement about narcissism and placing too much emphasis on self-image. Listening closely to the songs of In Outer Space, the message is clear: Sparks are not actually telling you to start “Prayin’ for a Party”, to seek out some “Rockin’ Girls” or “Dance Godammit.” They’re trying to show you how stupid the people who do that are.

None of that would matter, of course, if the songs weren’t any good. Armed with nothing but a LinnDrum and a Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizer, Ron Mael cooks up a batch of tunes carefully orchestrated to lure the listener with hooks and melodies at every turn, while keeping them at arm’s length with deliberately cold and uninviting production. Russell’s vocal performances are top-notch across the board as usual, though curiously he doesn’t handle the lead vocal on a couple of tracks; “Popularity” and “A Fun Bunch of Guys from Outer Space” are sung by a mystery vocalist with some sort of European accent. (On the back cover, you can see there’s a total of six guys in the band at this point, but I sure as heck can’t hear anybody but Ron and Russell–and our mystery singer–here, save for a few guitar lines popping up throughout the songs.) Throughout the album, the catchy singalong lyrics grab your attention, but the thudding electronic drums and the glistening, robotic synthesizer lines make sure that you never become too comfortable in this world. Sparks want you to only watch and observe this artificial landscape upon which they’ve constructed these grim character studies, and dance along to the beat while you’re at it.

Remember–this is a band that had spent over a decade releasing records loaded with rich, varied instrumentation, with nearly every one of them sounding totally different from the others. Sparks was just about the last band on the planet that would be out of ideas at this point (almost 40 years after their first album, they’re still not); there’s no doubt in my mind that the decision to record commercial synthpop music topped with self-consciously inane and ironic lyrics was a deliberate move. (Even Giorgio Moroder’s production on 1979’s synth-laden No. 1 in Heaven was warmer than this.) As usual with Sparks, though, it’s all for a purpose and it’s all about proving their point. If the music of In Outer Space was any more organic, any less alienating, you the listener would risk getting sucked into the hedonism and shallowness that plagues the sad figures in these songs. By creating a buffer between the listener and the music, Sparks keep the subject matter from appearing too glamorous, thereby hitting home their message. It’s a remarkable and daring approach, and it’s nearly a total success.

Besides the satire and sharp social commentary, some of the stuff on this album is just typical Sparks. “I Wish I Looked a Little Better” is a lament by someone who doesn’t really fit into this pastel-colored world of nice cars, clubs and girls; he and this song would have fit in just fine on, say, Angst in My Pants. “A Fun Bunch of Guys from Outer Space” is fun but silly singalong nonsense that’s a complete detour from the rest of the material, despite the possibility of it being the album’s namesake; it contains the only reference here to the quite excellent cover photo (“We arrived here from the sky on the cream pie parked outside!”) “Please Baby Please” is a me-too synthpop trifle that’s memorable only because of its hooks; it’s easily the most derivative track on here, though it’s still a good generic pop song. On this album, it’s never obvious where the plastic-coated messages yield to straight-ahead (but smart) synthpop, but the clues are there for you to find, if you decide to search.

People like to compare this album to the ones that preceded it (1981’s Whomp That Sucker, 1982’s Angst in My Pants) when it should really be compared to the abysmal tripe that came after it (1984’s Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat; 1986’s Music That You Can Dance To). I say that because this album marks the beginning of “synthpop” Sparks, a phase in their career that began with this album and ended with 1988’s Interior Design. Their early 80’s albums are their own animal; that’s “new wave” Sparks, at least to me. In Outer Space marks a transitory period from smart, cheeky new wave to dry, faceless synthpop, which is all Sparks would continue to record for the remainder of the decade.

But here In Outer Space, the humor and smarts of their previous albums intersect with a brand new pop sensibility that was cutting-edge for the era. Hardly any other artist of the 1980’s was able to create a synthpop record as musically appealing yet intellectually stimulating as this. The real kicker? Sparks themselves couldn’t top this album for the rest of the decade, no matter how hard they tried. Toss me a cream pie.

Technical afterword: If at all possible, try to avoid purchasing Repertoire Records’ 1999 CD reissue of In Outer Space. Astonishingly, this release has been transferred from a vinyl copy of the original album, not a master tape. Sound quality is, as you would imagine, quite poor as a result. To add insult to injury, the music has been heavily “brickwalled”, sucking out the dynamics and making it very fatiguing to listen to. The only other CD edition of this album that I’m familiar with is the 1995 reissue on Oasis/Kiosk, released in Germany only. This disc has been sourced from a proper master and has the dynamics intact. (I’m not familiar with the sound quality of Oglio’s 1998 reissue or Imperial’s 2009 Japanese reissue, unfortunately.)

Cait Brennan: More than any other Sparks record up to this point, In Outer Space sounds very much of its time …and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It has the sterile, antiseptic production of pretty much every record that came out that year. It’s echoey, tinny, beepy, wishy-washy, the kind of thing you’d hear in the background in a movie like “Modern Girls” or “Slam Dance”. I’m sure some people think Angst or Whomp That Sucker sound dated, but to me, they’re totally out of time—they took punk, New Wave, glam, disco, threw it into a nuclear furnace and hit “overdrive”. The guitars on those records, the fat analog synths and especially the vocals, are delivered with purpose and intensity. But even though it was their big breakthrough, and even though it does have some fine moments, In Outer Space just feels cold. Oy, that tinny production. Branigan 2 is warmer.

If I had to name one thing I love about Sparks’ entire body of work, it’s Russell’s vocals. Honestly it’s a tie with the lyrics, but the difference between a great Sparks song and a so-so one is Russell’s delivery. When he’s on, when it’s operatic or precise or that magical, almost parodic rock-star-overdrive he does now and then—it’s magic. Maybe it’s the production, but for me it sounds like Russell delivers too many of his vocals as though he accidentally ingested a kilo of Valium. Detached, flat, overly twee, and—in the case of “Cool Places”—gratingly toneless. And wait, am I blaming Russell for those tracks sung by the mystery European guy? Who’s letting weird Europeans sing for Sparks anyway? Did Queen hire an Austrian butler to sing on A Night At The Opera? I think not!

When you’re a kid, everything passes in a blur, and in the mayhem of my life at the time, I honestly didn’t realize the band that did “Angst In My Pants” and the band that did “Cool Places” was the same group—and really, listening now, they’re so drastically different that my obliviousness makes sense. I’ve always guessed (perhaps incorrectly) that Russell sings so low in “Cool Places” to accommodate Wiedlin’s limited range, but the low register doesn’t do him any favors, and the male-female dynamic just doesn’t, um, spark. I like Jane, and her voice would be perfect for J-Pop or some nerdcore indie band in 2011—but it lacks the grain for rock and roll. Her tone-deaf queen bee bandmate Belinda Carlisle had that vocal texture in spades (and not much else)—in fact, Jane’s pure tones (and ability to sing on key) made her the perfect foil for Carlisle. Jane’s break on “Our Lips Are Sealed” is the best part of a great song, and damn it, Jane shoulda sung “Mercenary”! But I digress. Putting her up against Russell, who in my view is a contender for greatest rock vocalist of all time, is a tough gig.

Joey makes a strong argument that In Outer Space might be an intentional, high-concept sendup of soulless, synthesized 80s dance music. The evidence is persuasive and it definitely sounds like something Sparks would pull, but if it’s true I definitely didn’t get the joke at the time. Or now. Honestly, to me, Kilroy Was Here is funnier. I almost think that if it’s the case–if this truly was supposed to be an album of mocking, mannered inanities–I’m kind of disappointed that Ron and Russell would be that condescending to their potential audience. Like, “can you believe people are vapid and clueless enough to listen to music like this record you just bought?” But, after a couple of years of being KROQ darlings, maybe they’d had enough, and who can blame ‘em?

Having said all that, I do like some of it quite a bit. “Prayin’ For A Party” and “I Wish I Looked A Little Better” definitely recall the previous two records in a good way. Jane is back in “Lucky Me Lucky You”, driving Russell’s vocals into the lower register again. It’s kind of a love song for robots. Robots who have no emotions. Or guitars. I think I like “I Wish” and “Please Baby Please” best. “All You Ever Think About Is Sex” is pretty good too.

Okay, let’s face it: it’s a decent record and I’m being way too hard on it–mainly, I think, because it was such a letdown after Angst. The songs are wry and funny, Jane has her charms, and it introduced a whole lotta people to one of the best bands in music history. But for me it just kinda plods, musically—“Dance Godammit” sums it up for me—whereas Angst was just this blast of liberating, hilarious, take-no-prisoners awesomeness. Blame my inner jaded record store clerk, but I tend to think of In Outer Space—their biggest selling record in the US—as the start of their unfortunate (and very temporary) decline.


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