Imogen Heap tells a story in her new album Sparks (released August 19). No, it’s not a single narrative construct built from the individual tracks. Rather it’s a story of risk, playfulness and joie de vivre. It is a story of embracing and sharing musically all sorts of different experiences, interactions, and cultures. If you haven’t chanced upon Ms. Heap’s music, she has a beautifully unique voice which avoids making every song sound alike by her incredible range, embracing experimentation and her impeccable performance. Ms. Heap expresses this sense of experimentation and outright playfulness in her teaser for Sparks.
There is a sense of magic in all she does, by which I mean fanciful flights of delightful surprise. She weaves technology, cultural themes and haunting beauty into her songs in contrasting ways. For example, the “Cycle Song” uses contemporary tempo to the music while pulling in elements of Buddhist chant.
You can pretty much count on most songs by Imogen Heap to have some contrasting images and sounds with some fairly probing lyrics. “You Know Where to Find Me” is no exception. She has the rhythmic, driving piano melody as an undercurrent to her song, while her lyrics suggest that to be with her requires being fully present. “You know where to find me / When you’re on your way out / All bustle and busy / Enough is enough / Because life’s sweet assemblages / Equate to driftwood away / Be still with me.” We have a reminder of the complexity of relationships whilst simultaneously reminded that, at least sometimes, we can just be together.
Another hallmark of Ms. Heap is layers of sound making up her songs, as we see in “Entanglement.” From light bell sounds and thumping beats, to organ and violin harmonic background, we see these layers give texture to our being entangled with one another: “Burst me into bloom I dare you to / Loose yourself in our embodiment / Ravage this palate of pinks and reds / Dissolve into radiance.”
In “The Listening Chair,” we are treated to a life, in all its ups and downs, as if we had some inanimate object that could then report on bits that they’ve experienced. From the wide-eyed wonders of those formative years to the challenges of the playground to the heartache of broken relationships as a young adult, we are given snatches of a life. The music supports this well from the syncopated percussion in the beginning to the light harmonies and robotic listing of things we’re able to do. As we are reaching into our dreams, the melody becomes more driving and strident to a wailing end. “The Listening Chair” is a study in matching lyrics to music and narrative progression of a song.
The instrumental piece “Cycle Song” immediately transports you to another world as if you just wondered into a Tibetan (or Bhutan) monastery modernized. It is communal in nature, chanting in character and modern in flavor. It connects regional folk music with modern sensibilities. It anchors us to a in specific place while giving a picture of fast movement.
“Telemiscommnications,” featuring Deadmau5, perfectly embodies those disembodied snippets of conversation, texts, voicemails and Facebook messages that we so easy to fall into, rather than full conversation, which both lead to miscommunication and a weakening of connected lives. The percussion pops portray the quick touch-points we limit ourselves to on a daily basis.
In concert with her own approach to music, “Lifeline” encourages us to really live, even in the midst of dark times; there will be times when we need to hang onto that lifeline. What lifeline is will differ for each us, but hang we must. Then go on with living: “Adventures in the multiverse / effervescent candlelit closeness / Plus, I feel like I’ve just got the hang of this living thing” and just as we have that sense of our ability: “Who? What? When? / All in one stir of a teaspoon / I’m shaken and gasping for air, air, air, air.” That’s the time to hold onto that “Lifeline, before and after / in an instant of great white gravity/Hold tight, ’cause all is against me / Every cell in my body, brace.” Again, the music matches this theme well with relentless but light piano moving the narrative forward, a breathless quality when we’re tossed about and then the strong chorus of the lifeline.
Now we move into “Neglected Space” and travel on a guided tour of a whispered disembodied voice expressing the worries of becoming a neglected space in the life of her lover. In this fear, we can be serene and philosophical, wherein we primarily look at the neglect of each other, but also at the negative space between things, emotional and otherwise, that we neglect. She sees that the relationship is ”Bespoke to broken, this interwoven tapestry of tragedy / Crooked frames and cracked glazing / Slithers of wistful window gazes glint in borrowed light.” While she tries to hope, she knows she can’t let go: “Oh… I’m a story in mourning, and you’re the author / So pour out your masterpiece / Entropy increasing, how long before I’m dust? / Can we discuss?”
Ms. Heap’s “Minds Without Fear,” once again presents the multi-cultural world, featuring Vishal-Shekhar, where village meets songstress, modern meets Indian folktale and Imogen Heap meets us. Even as we suffer through the trials and tribulation: “But we just might make this path / We need our heads up high / So this story continues with / Minds without fear.”
Ms. Heap travels through different tempos, musical themes and instrumentation the way the TGV train takes you from Dijon to Paris: with ease and panache. We move from Indian village to high tech machines. She is a Makers Faire dream girl building new tech to perform in new ways as in “Me the Machine.” The song starts out like an ethereal circus, cross a land of silicon circuits and logic switches, wondering how you teach love to a machine: “A blip in the algorithm / A break in the clouds / Soft circuits, jumping. Soft circuits, jumping. / The pincodes of happiness / Access denied / Switching to manual, switching to manual / How can you teach me these things / Me, the machine can dream.”
Ms. Heap’s music is whimsical and compelling as evidenced by her opening “alarm” in “Run Time” with those incredibly fabulous music and lyrics: “Sparks might fly, in no time. / It’s a delayed reaction of the third kind. (ooh) / I’m so ready for this. / Shrink-wrapped tones, I can face the music. / Stop matters bonding us way beyond / Our best by-days. / You know we’ve had it good, we’ve had it bad, so no hard feelings. / We’ve done all we could and all again. I’m done pretending. / Let’s quit while we’re still friends.”
In 2012, the village of Sakteng in Bhutan received electricity for the first time. In order to receive that electricity, each family had carry an electrical pole up to the village. In the instrumental piece “Climb to Sakteng,” Ms. Heap celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit evidenced in this climb.
“The Beast” depicts those times when we let our anger overwhelm us and those around us. We feed the beast within us with hate to the point that all we cherish is destroyed: “One by one skin hardens, we’re becoming the beast / Shear power in the heat of hate brings our army of two to its knees / Steel lungs are screaming the house down, going for the kill from the kiss / Battle stations are now navigation, have we driven love to this?” The music itself matches the chaos and constant movement of this song.
“Xizi Knows Best” both celebrates the often clashing diversity of modern China with contemporary city life and ancient tradition and cautions against too much change too quickly: “We come to your shores over misty millennia / From hustlers to emperors / For power and pleasure / We carve through the cars / Dance around the Daily News / Cue in the Grande ballabile / Even your ten-ton tone rings home for Marco Polo / Slow down / From a thread of sky / Slow down / To the warp and weft your being / Slow down / You’re beautiful, graceful, like no other / Pretty damned good as you are.” The music melds into the fabric of this frenetic city life with an electronic, computerized sound of a SciFi move to a flowing, rhythmic ode to modern China.
Ms. Heap’s narrative powers come to the fore again in “Propeller Seeds.” It a whimsical story of two coming together and wondering what their comingled story might be. It walks through daydreaming to meeting, complete with jazz band background, and contemplating life of putting down roots. The music is equally whimsical and light and is a Peter Pan reflection on potential adult life where Peter is thinking of growing up.
Taken as a whole, Ms. Heap takes us on a varied, intricate and beautiful journey, both musically and lyrically, in this album. I cannot recommend it enough.