Where did the groove go?..
That day, I took my girlfriend to see The Master and Margarita staged by a local theatre. This was about eight years ago, maybe a little more. The performance was horrible. Bulgakov was publicly castrated and the acting was so hammy I thought I would be dumped before the intermission. One thing kept me alive: each time the actor playing Behemoth said something (big mistake), I thought of the CD I had bought earlier that day. It was called Lil’ Beethoven (I rather liked the title) and it had a hilarious lyrics sheet that was more or less one phrase repeated over and over again.
Later that day, at around midnight, I pressed play and the record blew me away. It was like the deadliest plague but one you do in fact wish upon yourself. Lil’ Beethoven was intoxicating, and weeks and months later it kept seeping through my system in a way that was both abusive and exhilarating. In the end, it consumed each and every cell of my body. For all the great records ever written, nothing had ever astounded me quite this much.
Let’s put it this way: Lil’ Beethoven is the closest contemporary popular music has come to some sort of sonic revolution. And while the Mael brothers had already tried this sound before (on 2000’s Balls, for instance), this was the album that put all the right ingredients into place. All those infectious pop melodies piling on top of synthesized classical orchestration on top of smart lyrical repetitions on top of Russel Mael’s layered vocals. 'Unique' would be an understatement.
From the very first seconds of “The Rhythm Thief”, you know this is something else. Several punch lines are repeated again and again over dramatic classical background: 'I am the rhythm thief, say goodbye to the beat', 'Where did the groove go?', 'Lights out, Ibiza', a couple of others. And it never gets boring or tiresome. The sound is charismatic and varied enough to leave you breathless. “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?” is an old joke given a major, thunderous musical boost. “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” is a witty attack on certain bands taking themselves way too seriously. The excessively gorgeous “I Married Myself” is heartbreaking optimism at its finest. “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” is an onslaught.
Side two is more of the same, but things are taken to their extreme point. “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” is basically its title repeated over a 100 (hundred) times and the fact that it never becomes grating tells you all about the winning formula as well as the self-confidence and remarkable talent involved. “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold.” could be about unhealthy relationships that render certain young men completely useless. The surprisingly heavy and verbose “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls” employs hard-hitting guitars and is an interesting piece of social commentary. 'It ain’t done with smoke and mirrors'. Finally, there is an uplifting, music-hallish number called "Suburban Homeboy" ('Props to our peeps and please keep your receipts') that is an absolute joy to sing along to.
Nine scintillating works of seduction and self-delusion by the diminutive master of the art and musical overkill. Lil’ Beethoven. Entertainment in extremis. This is what the sleeve says, and it's hard to argue with that. And it’s truly remarkable how this was Sparks’ 19th studio album and how they were prepared to go this far at such a late stage of their career. Two great albums in similar vein followed, but it’s Lil’ Beethoven that remains the etalon.
And I do say remains. Because my relationship was over. Because they stopped showing The Master and Margarita one month later. Because it was so long ago. And because every time I play Lil’ Beethoven now, eight years later, it all feels so real.