Most underdog rock documentaries paint a doleful portrait of neglected geniuses who have been cruelly denied their due. Director Edgar Wright’s 2021 love letter to SparksThe Sparks Brothers, doesn’t exactly make that case: The copious clips of brothers Ron and Russell Mael performing on Top of the Pops in the ’70s and joshing with Dick Clark on American Bandstand in the ’80s indicate this band hasn’t exactly been wallowing in obscurity. What Wright’s film argues is that Sparks simply aren’t popular enough. But thanks to The Sparks Brothers’ Netflix-abetted dissemination, and the Maels’ subsequent César Award win for scoring Leos Carax’s maniacal musical Annette, the brothers are currently enjoying an unprecedented degree of mainstream attention for a couple of septuagenarians on their 26th album—complete with a Cate Blanchett co-sign and prime Yellowjackets placement. This summer, the brothers will headline the Hollywood Bowl, the same venue where they saw the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania. Fifty years after these American Anglophiles first became cause célèbres in the UK, Sparks are an international institution—and with The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte, they meet their moment head-on and thoroughly whomp that sucker. The album marks the Maels’ return to Island (incubator of their earliest ’70s hits) after 47 years, but the move doesn’t so much signal a return to their glam glory days as reaffirm Sparks’ surging currency.

Sparks are rightfully praised as savvy shapeshifters, but the past decade has been one of relative aesthetic consistency. After a half-century of bounding between rock theatricality, electro-disco austerity, and classical frippery, recent releases like Hippopotamus and A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip have synthesized the Maels’ interests into sleek hybrid models, presenting a vision of pop music that belongs equally to Old Hollywood and outer space. The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte stays the course but exudes even more vitality and verve, striking the ideal Sparksian balance of madcap melody, labyrinthine arrangement, and stinging social satire. What Kimono My House was to their glitter-rock phase and No. 1 in Heaven was to their synth-pop period, The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte is to this late-career era of holistic stability: While it may not aspire to the same game-changing sense of surprise as those ecstatic classics, it nonetheless represents a new high-water mark for 21st-century Sparks.

As titles go, The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte would make for a perfectly wistful Belle and Sebastian record, but Sparks present that melancholy café scene as a five-alarm fire. On the opening title track, buzzing synthesizer and panic-attack beats direct our attention to a weeping woman who’s experiencing not so much a midlife crisis as a middle-class crisis: the appearance of having it all but feeling empty inside. As the pressure mounts, “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” transforms into an electro-shocked “Eleanor Rigby,” its dejected protagonist serving as an avatar: “So many people are crying in their latte,” Russell repeats, providing a bumper-sticker slogan for a record that suggests the true meaning of life is to brace yourself for its endless disappointments.

But no other band articulates existential dread with such playful panache and joyous absurdity. The self-explanatory sentiments of “Nothing Is as Good as They Say It Is” are packaged into feel-good power-pop sung from the perspective of a newborn baby who gets an eyeful of life outside the womb and opts to crawl back in. And on “The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight,” even da Vinci’s eternal model of calm contentment is anxious to step out of the frame and run for the hills. “She might seem dispassionate, but that’s not true/She feels much the same as everyone, me and you,” Russell observes as he rides a synth-speckled stomp into an alternate universe where Sparks enlisted Giorgio Moroder to produce Indiscreet.

Through Sparks’ looking glass, history becomes fantasy, politics become pantomime, and dictators become DJs. Over the goose-stepping ’90s piano-house accents of “We Go Dancing,” Russell sketches a delirious caricature of authoritarianism by assuming the voice of a Kim Jong Un zealot who claims his fair leader is far more skilled behind the decks than Skrillex and “maybe Diplo.” And on “Veronica Lake,” the brothers revive the movie star of the 1940s with electronics from the 2040s, reframing her strange-but-true story of sacrificing her signature hairstyle for the war effort as a white-knuckled do-or-die mission worthy of an espionage thriller. But if The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte reaffirms Sparks’ status as rock’s most reliable fabulists, the album’s grand finale brings forth an uncharacteristic introspection. In their 1994 UK hit single, Russell asked, “When do I get to sing ‘My Way’?” and “Gee, That Was Fun” is as close as he’ll probably get: a plaintive, curtain-closing ballad that catalogs his regrets. And he’s had a few. (For starters: “Should have spent less time watching sports/Should have improved my quick retorts.”) It’s the sort of song that sounds like a deathbed reflection, or perhaps a requiem for Sparks themselves. But most likely, it’s the album’s most elaborate prank: a cunning send-up of the meditations on mortality that serious artists are expected to write once they reach their 70s—a joke for which Sparks’ ongoing renaissance provides its own self-evident punchline.

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Sparks: The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte