We are often conditioned to believe that an artist’s best work comes from those somber times where isolation, heartbreak and introspection into self take residence. You know, those heart-on-sleeve, exposing, coming-of-age efforts that warrant salty tears and balled up Kleenex’s. Yeah, those types of albums always get the critical praise and win all the awards (hello, Adele!), but what about the feel-good albums that come from an artist’s wanderings in simple euphoria? Where they’ve cast all cares away? When they are unlucky in love, but still willing to give it the old college try? On Return to Paradise, Sam Sparro experiences life and love, and he flat out celebrates and makes a banquet out of it — and we are all welcome join in and party hearty.
Sparro draws the album’s title and its loose concept from the famous Paradise Garage, a NYC haunt that had its heyday from 1976 to 1987 and housed DJ Larry Levan who was noted for playing various genres of music and making them all seemingly blend together. It’s quite obvious that Levan’s DJ-ing trait is an inspirational blueprint for Sparro’s overall style as the aural theme of Return to Paradise is a kaleidoscopic trip of all things R&B, disco, new wave, house and funk all of which are jammed packed to the wall, yet are truly simpatico. It’s nothing new really, as the Aussie singer/songwriter/part-time DJ has always been one to romp in a myriad of vintage sound feasts. His 2008 self-titled debut tells that tale, as it was a cosmic climb of electronica that had Sparro’s soul boy persona peeking through the middle eights. Though his debut single, the dark brilliance of “Black & Gold” was probably the bravest thing to come out that year, you won’t find that kind of experiment on Return to Paradise.
Paradise is a slicker, sharper and just a flat-out more blissful experience than its predecessor. It’s purely an album for shiny happy people — so Eeyore stick house occupants need not apply to the funk and spunk that Sparro ejects from this. The 29-year-old Aussie sure does love his late ’70’s and ’80’s music, and has no doubt spun the records of Rufus & Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Rick James, Chic and lest we forget the Purple Sultan of Sound, Prince, during his youth and it shows in the musical repertoire he splashes out here as he captures the same spirit and the soul and brings it all into the 21st century. With songwriters and producers from Florence & The Machine‘s Isabella Summers, Greg Kurstin, Erik Hassle and Sparro’s long-time collaborator, Jesse Rogg on board, they too bring Sparro’s affection for the past to light.
As the opening track “Paradise People” slinks in with a mutant disco grin on its face, it surveys the countless array of characters that filled the legendary club’s dance floors — and all of those personalities froth up in each of the tracks presented on Paradise. Bass licks n’ sunshine ’90’s house piano riffs make up the aptly titled “Happiness” and it’s a pure love thang as it jangles along. The same can be said for the quirky bounce of “Yellow Orange Rays” as it twists in and out of tempo changes. The momentum is kept up with “Let The Love In” with its early-’80’s glow this side of Fatback Band‘s “I Found Lovin'” and a smattering of New Jack Swing in its mix. The bonus track “Quarter Life Crisis” is nothing short of a jam, with a groove and snarky wit that seems stolen straight from Prince’s vault of music. He lassos and ropes down disco with floor burners like single “The Shallow End,” which chugs along with great sax notes squiggling in. The six-minute swirl of “We Could Fly” is equally impressive as it builds up tension and dives into brass heaven thanks to the horn section of Hercules and Love Affair. The Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer-esque “Closer” round out the funkier side of Paradise.
While he does shimmy and shake, Sparro also takes a dive into the retrospective abyss with carefully calculated new wave on “Hearts Like Us” and the dreamy title track. The current single, “I Wish I Never Met You,” is the closest thing to something moody, and though he clumsily rhymes “crackhead” with “blackhead” (really?), the overall song reminds us of Sparro’s vocal abilities and that he can write a corker of a kiss-off song.
In this age where most artists out there are simply imitating others legacies but failing to craft their own, Sam Sparro sticks out like a sore groovy thumb. Return to Paradise has the singer actively showcasing his affection for the artists of yesteryear, but he doesn’t sound like a cloying clone. Sparro simply has a love for music and the music he enjoys, and that love naturally flows out in his work. Like most music lovers he wants to relish in the groove and allows his devotion to grow with each passing encounter, and it’s showing in the growing catalog of material he puts forth. From first spin, it’s crystal clear that this shimmering album is just the beginning for Sparro and his pursuit to spread the joy of music all around — and it is nothing short of paradise.