Wednesday, August 27, 2014

album review: 'sparks' by imogen heap

The more you think about it, the more you realize how much indie pop in the modern era owes to Imogen Heap.

And believe me, you wouldn't have thought that, especially when you look at the odd arc of her career. Starting in the late 90s with i-Megaphone, Imogen Heap stepped into the indie scene with an album blending fuzz-saturated alt-rock with gorgeously, surprisingly intricate keyboard melodies and a breathy voice that proved incredibly versatile and emotionally compelling. And while on reflection that record is so 90s it's painful, Imogen Heap's talent does shine through and would be a sign that her opulent, genre-bending sophomore release in 2005 would be worth the wait.

And oh dear god it was. Let me make this clear: i-Megaphone is a decent album. Speak For Yourself is a goddamn masterpiece that's one of the best albums of the 2000s, hands down. Raw, uncomfortably intimate, overloaded with memorable melodies and genre bending with production that Imogen Heap all did herself without a record label and nearly went bankrupt for the trouble, it's the sort of desperately small-scale conceptual record that sounds so much bigger and and more meaningful than it should be... and then goes and earns that drama. The fact that it managed to be cohesive, emotional, and incredibly catchy along the way won Imogen Heap critical acclaim, but popularity would come when the ghostly autotuned and absolutely gorgeous song 'Hide & Seek' used on The OC and then sampled by Jason Derulo for one of the worst hit songs of 2009 and possibly the decade in 'Whatcha Say'.

But by that point Imogen Heap was moving onto her newest project Ellipse, which also came out in 2009... to mostly middling reviews. Critics and fans were baffled - it wasn't like Ellipse was a bad record, overstuffed with the same rich plethora of musical ideas that formed Speak For Yourself, so why wasn't it as good? Well, after a few relistens, an answer was easily apparent: the drama and emotional intensity that defined Speak For Yourself was downplayed on Ellipse, and it made the instrumental flourishes and flowery lyrics appear a lot less gripping and much more indulgent. And the more I heard about the development of Imogen Heap's newest record Sparks, the more I was concerned that same indulgence might come up again. Sure, the music would undoubtedly be pretty, but would there be the emotional intensity that drove that sophomore masterpiece, especially after a recording process that took much longer and featured instruments Imogen Heap helped design and all manner of art campaigns accompanying the many, many singles released over the past three years. But Imogen Heap has earned a ton of good will with me, so I dove deep into Sparks: do we have another masterpiece?

Well, not quite, but it's still damn, damn good. The odd thing with this album is that, well, it's not really a conventional album when it comes to overarching themes or a narrative, mostly thanks to its extended, globe-trotting composition. And while it is truly incredible that this album manages to feel as incredibly cohesive as it is, it means that this album probably works better in pieces than as a whole - and indeed, that might be one of the overarching points of the record. Either way, it's definitely something you need to hear, because in terms of indie pop this year, nothing quite sounds like Imogen Heap.

Now granted, that's been true for years now, and it starts with Imogen Heap herself. Her voice has always been one of her strongest assets in terms of crafting the sound, either through multi-tracking, shockingly close intimacy, and all brands of vocal effects that still somehow preserve her organic sound. Part of this is her masterful production, but where this album really shines is that Imogen Heap sounds intensely invested in telling these stories and she's got the emotional versatility to back it up. And while I wouldn't quite say she's as raw and exposed, you can tell she's as committed to the dramatic presentation as anyone. And of course, if you're a fan of her harmonic arrangements, she delivers in spades on songs like 'The Listening Chair'

And it helps the instrumentation and production is along for the ride. I've always loved Imogen Heap's brand of production: spacious yet intimate, constructed yet stunningly organic and natural, and she's at her most lush and gorgeous here, fusing electronic effects with richly textured organic instrumentation. The shimmering keyboards balanced against the thick beat of 'You Know Where To Find Me', the gorgeous strings and piano arrangement against the Indian-inspired beat and vocals of 'Cycle Song', 'Minds Without Fear', and 'Climb To Sakteng', the sweeping echoing presence of 'Neglected Space' that begins half-spoken word piece before bringing in strings and keyboards, the gleaming and rich tones of 'Me, The Machine', the brittle snaps against the heartbreakingly dreary keyboards of 'Telemiscommunications', the folk-inspired crackling darkness of 'The Beast', the incredible binaural array of sound effects filling 'Propeller Seeds', and of course the shockingly strong and potent groove of 'Lifeline' that might just be one of the best songs Imogen Heap has ever written. Now there are a few moments that don't quite stick the landing as effectively: the synths of 'Run-Time' strike me as a little chintzy and lacking in texture for Imogen Heap, and 'Xizi She Knows' feels a little overstuffed, but overall, the sheer breadth and blend of sounds Imogen Heap brings to the table is startling, and it's even more incredible she makes the flow of the album feel cohesive.

And now we get to the lyrics - where honestly, where the critics of Imogen Heap have made the strongest points, in that she writes flowery and descriptive songs that can feel a little light on meaning or humanity. And given the free-form nature of most of these songs, that criticism could have some validity... if you don't see the bigger picture, both of the songs and the record as a whole. Sure, 'The Listening Chair' is a song filled with offbeat references and elements that feel like a random jumble of everything Imogen Heap liked across her life... until you realize that's the point. It's a collection of experiences and facts that used to define her and now she's staring across the emptiness and wondering who she is now. 

And while space and emptiness might be one of the main running motifs, there's a reason this record is called Sparks, tiny embers of feeling that can gently caress on 'Entanglement' or scorch on the brutal troubled relationship song 'The Beast' or even streak across the sky like bolts of lightning on 'Minds Without Fear'. The drive to attain that spark of feeling energizes on 'Me, The Machine' or reinvigorates on 'You Know Where To Find Me', even as the latter song shows that such revitalization has a cost. After all, a little spark needs coaxing to become a flame. But it's where this record highlights that broader emptiness and shows how fragile those sparks are is where it develops some real emotional heft. I've already mentioned 'The Listening Chair', but then you have 'Neglected Space', where Imogen Heap sings from the perspective of the neglected space itself, anthropomorphizing it and showing how it yearns for that spark of life. And then there's the heartbreaking 'Telemiscommunications' with deadmau5, portraying how we strive to hold onto those sparks that can flicker and fade without real human contact. 

But the album really develops some real power when it freezes the moment when those sparks ignites. 'Lifeline' is an incredible snapshot of how we react when faced with something implacable, a desperate moment where we seize onto whatever we can to push our way through to stay sane. And then there's the album closer 'Propeller Seeds', where the moment she encounters someone special and feels rooted to the spot as the sheer wealth of infinite possibilities presents itself. She doesn't know where that story goes, but that such a small spark could create such a vast amount of potential shows just how powerful those sparks really are.

In other words, I really do like this album. It's stunningly cohesive and powerful, and while I do feel some of the instrumental experimentation doesn't always stick the landing, Imogen Heap's Sparks is still powerful. I'm not sure it'll ever match the drama of Speak For Yourself, which means I'm going to give this album a strong 8/10, but this record still deserves to be seen as one of the most engaging and emotionally evocative albums of the year. Highly recommended, if only to share some of those sparks with all of you.

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