Sparks are popular in Sweden, it seems. Like duck comics. Those Scandinavians really have their heads on straight. So as a result of this popularity, the band was commissioned by Swedish National Radio to create a radio musical. A first-ever for R'n'R! Or for just about *anyone* in this day and age. It had to be somehow Sweden-related. So, they hit on Ingmar Bergman.
The story: Ingmar goes on a whim to see a bad American action film and finds himself in Hollywood upon leaving the theater. What follows is a surreal, Kafkaesque nightmare as a Hollywood studio tries to convince him to work for THEM! Then, at the end, he's saved by Greta Garbo, who gets him back to Sweden. True story.
Now look, this is obviously a departure for the band--first musical, first album with a narrative, first one to incorporate a multitude of voices--so obviously, it's going to take some getting used to for the average fan (well, for me). The reason this feature went up so late is that I felt it was incumbent on me to listen to it enough to have a somewhat thought-out opinion.
And the opinion I've come to: this is pretty darned cool. Honestly, the general concept doesn't exactly blow me away; it does the job, and it makes sense for a somewhat marginalized band like Sparks to take on this art-vs-commerce theme, but the idea doesn't set me on fire--I feel like it's just adequate. The execution is where it shines, however, and isn't that what it's all about? Somewhat irritatingly, the entire thing is presented as one bigass track, even though it's broken into segments in the booklet. Sure, it's designed to be listened to as a whole rather than in pieces, but it just feels a bit clunky, and I feel like it makes it somewhat more difficult to analyze. It's not too much of an issue, however.
The songs aren't uniformly great, but there's plenty worth hearing here. The one that most people (including me--I'm SUCH a sheep) will immediately identify as the album's highlight is "The Studio Commissary," probably because it sounds most traditionally Sparksish. Russell, as the studio chief, takes Bergman to the commissary and, like Satan showing Jesus the kingdoms of the world, points out all the famous expatriate directors eating there, all to the tune form of a frantic, vaguely sinister polka.
Also notable: Ron sings! A Sparks first! And he does so credibly well, as "limo driver" and particularly as "Hollywood tour guide" (the funniest part of the album). The latter segues into the tense "Autograph Hounds," with its sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. The final escape sequence is also suitably climactic. Overall, I would say that the level of tension rises in quite an efficient/effective way, though honestly, the Garbo sequence at the end doesn't do much for me.
Still, why complain? It's fascinating, adventurous new terrain, and it's extremely heartening to see that the Maels aren't getting complacent in their late middle age. I eagerly await whatever comes next.