Sunday, March 25, 2012

Exotic Creatures Of The Deep - The Ultimate Sparks Album?

Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (ECOTD) is an album by Sparks from 2008.  This is not a typical pop album. First, it is a Sparks album, which pretty much ensures a challenging and rewarding musical experience. Still, in its depth, narrative, creativity, coherence, and execution, this album surpasses even the high standards usually associated with Sparks. One expects quality and thoughtfulness; I doubt anyone could have expected this.

In a nutshell, this album is a brilliant, conceptual masterpiece, a vision realized. And very witty! That's what this post is about.

From the first time I heard the album, I listened with unusually rapt attention.  The songs all seemed to fit together but I couldn’t figure out how. I listened over a dozen times straight through, trying to understand this album.  Only a couple of th songs, on their own, are true standouts.  Yet the album is so much more than the sum of its parts...Why? What were Sparks, aka keyboard player Ronald Mael and his brother, singer Russell Mael, getting at?

Then, like a thunderbolt, it hit me. I had the epiphany; it all came together.

ECOTD is not simply a collection of songs that kind of go together; it is a fully realized epic drama of operatic proportions.  It is a tale of one man’s odyssey to attain acceptance from others – a lesson which cannot come until he learns, perhaps grudgingly, to accept himself for who he is.

It may be the greatest Sparks album ever made.  Moreover, it’s one of the greatest albums ANYONE has ever made.  That is why now, years later and after coming back to the album after some time away from it, I am writing this.  I want people to know what has been accomplished here.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep is the story of one man’s triumph – or apparent triumph – over the demons inside him.  But as in so many things, it’s not just the story.  It’s the telling.  This one is told, like a great theatrical performance, in two Acts.


In a short overture, we are introduced to our protagonist in a short choral introduction (“Intro”).  He is a likable fellow, searching for love, yearning for something more, but lacking confidence in his own capacities and settling into a pragmatic, somewhat resigned role: “I don’t care if you love me…just so you like me…

Musical and lyrical themes are introduced which come back throughout the album at very specific times, foreshadowing a critical point of the story.  And the story unfolds thusly:

One night, our protagonist experiences something that alters his life.  He wakes up one morning and discovers a stranger beside him (“Good Morning”).  This is not the customary bill of fare – the lady lingered.  He tries to establish a meaningful relationship but of course, she has no interest (“does Das Vadanya really mean good morning?”), but he is not the same man he was the night before.

The song that tells this tale (“Good Morning”) seems to end. The song is a fine and catchy pop masterpiece, the first single from the album, and satisfying enough. It goes like this (with someone's funny interpreative photos):

But at the end there is a hint that there is more at work on this album than a collection of songs.  The first ending is false; the music seems to end but a second ending is heard.  A clear message is sent: there is more to our tale than what may appear obvious; our story is only beginning, as introduced by the key words repeated at the very end of the song: “good morning.  Who are you?” 

How many songs end in a question?  And in so doing, Sparks have set up the rest of the album: the protagonist’s quest to answer that question.  He is changed by the experience with the stranger – the first exotic creature introduced on the album  The next “exotic creature” is, in fact, the lust, or compulsion, that is now surging forward from the depths of his psyche.  In the next few songs we learn more about this “exotic creature,” which is symbolized musically as a “Strange Animal” that has entered his “song,” or more accurately his very persona. 

The “strange animal” is a Henry Hyde like compulsion that he fights off at first – he tries to tell the creature to ‘take a hike” – but the protagonist recognizes, in a brilliant piece of musical wordplay (“What a strange animal we are…” – not you are but we) that the strange animal is in fact a part of him, and will not be denied.  Reflecting the Jekyll/Hyde nature of the story, the music in this song shifts repeatedly from a soft, almost spoken tone to a driving, hard rocking assault – symbolizing the efforts by the “Strange Animal” to take over.  It takes the strange animal a few tries but finally the strange animal takes over (“you let me inside, you can’t push me aside…”).

Our protagonist is a changed man.  He enjoys the power that surges through him, the new found swagger.  Women fall for him easily as he utters trite banalities and meaningless cliches.  He can’t believe how easy it is (“I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All the Crap In This Song”)!

The good times are rolling as he is steered along by his new inner compulsion, the strange creature now symbolically manifested as a chimp who he thinks, foolishly, that he controls (“Let the Monkey Drive”). But he is not in the driver’s seat. He is in the back, fooling around while the strange animal propels the adventure forward.  Henry Hyde has taken over, and the music perfectly captures the mood as it frenetically charges along.

But wait…

An inner voice calls out (“Intro reprise”), from deep within the protagonist's soul - his conscience, struggling to be heard.  This isn’t you!  You lead a modest life, treat people well. Sure you’ve missed some fine times and adventures (“I’ve Never Been High”), but you are who you are, happy in your own skin! That’s the man you want to be. That is who you are.

And Act One comes to an end.  The man must confront his demons and vanquish them, or succumb to them.  But it does not come easily.  The protagonist is cast into chaos, and one can almost imagine a curtain falling over the proceedings, as we await Act Two.


As the second Act begins, our protagonist is casting aside the pleadings of his inner voice.  The strange animal pushes him farther over the abyss, even as the trysts become more bizarre and he further loses control (“She Got Me Pregnant”).  He pushes on, but at the same time, he confronts his confusion of identify, as well as his own inadequacies (“Lighten Up, Morrissey”).  He begins to come to grips with reality.  Time and space become meaningless as he yearns for his old life, better times when things were simpler and more promising (“This Is The Renaissance”).  

The protagonist’s journey continues and his path becomes clearer.  Experiencing his own renaissance of spirit, he wrestles with his inner demon – the “strange animal” – for control of his own destiny.  A tale of one more adventure gone awry – “The Director Never Yelled Cut” - is laden with symbolism as the story moves toward its denouement.  

Questions must be asked: Who is the Director that will not allow this horror story to end?  Is it the strange animal, wresting for final control?  Or is the man himself, seeking to wrest this demon from his life?  Who IS directing?

At first, we do not know, but there is a critical clue in the song; about half way through, we hear the musical chorus from the intro and reprise.  It is only a few notes, almost snuck in, but on this album nothing is accidental.  They are the music associated with the protagonist.  It is a short but essential interlude.  The “likeable” persona of the protagonist is assuming control and apparently prevails:

"The Director finally yelled…cut.”

The scene is set for the dramatic conclusion.  The penultimate song (“Photoshop”), with its insistent and frenetic refrain “Photoshop me out of your life!” tells the story.  The music builds in dramatic fashion as this battle is played out.  Our protagonist prevails and exorcises this demon, even as the strange animal calls out to him…implores him: “you know what you’re doing!  Grant me one more favor!” and most dramatically:

to think you used to be my friend!”

But the conflict is resolved.  In dramatic fashion, with swirling crescendos and dramatic musical expression, the strange animal is banished.  Our hero is free of his demons.

But is he?  As the song ends, a small, haunting voice, barely audible and seemingly coming from a distant place, calls out: "photoshop…photoshop…” How perfect. How harrowing.

Our story ends.  Our protagonist has accepted himself for who he is (“Likeable”).  He is back to his old life.  Boring perhaps, without love once again…but our man is at peace.  

But recall the haunting voice at the end of the previous song hinting that the “strange animal” is not fully vanquished. And in this song’s most dramatic and aggressive passage, a startling change of tone from the rest of the song, we hear:

Wonder what it feels like to be in love,
How would you describe it, like a push or shove,
Guess I keep pretending this is all I need,
Wanting more than what I have might appear as greed

So we must ask – will this adventure continue?  Is the strange animal – this exotic creature from deep within the human psyche - truly gone?  And the song’s ending only reinforces the questions: the music from the intro reasserts itself, thus coming full circle and hinting that this may just be a tale that is not truly over.

Interestingly, I’ve rarely seen the album discussed from the perspective I’ve laid out here.   Reviews sometimes referred to it as at best a bunch of “loosely connected” songs, or made no mention of a connecting narrative at all.  I’ve never seen Ron or Russell refer to it in any such way whatsoever. But it seems clear to me that on this album there is great thoughtfulness that goes beyond what “loosely connected” might imply.

Have I read more into this album than was intended?  Only Ron and Russell know for sure!  But if nothing else, ECOTD is a great representation of the genius that is Sparks at their finest.