Despite being paid up incarceration, one up side of long distance travel is time; the real life hiatus where you catch up on emails, actually read, or just throw exploding poultry at stubborn 2D structures.
It’s an excusable respite. So with three cities and as many pairs of socks ahead of me (I like clean feet) I’m happily detached when sitting down (and buckling up) to review Imogen Heap’s latest album, Sparks – released on August 18th though Heap’s own label, Megaphonic Records.
Now I don’t usually allocate 60hrs to review an album, but then most releases these days aren’t 14tracks long.
Plus Ms Heap, whose vocals I fell for after hearing ‘Blanket’ by Urban Species (her mournful, husky chorus being the absolute key to that track) has thrown more than considered usual at her fourth solo album. Alongside the standard LP there’s a double disk deluxe edition, 14 High Def music videos, documentaries of each track being made, a 120 page coffee table book and even a pack of playing cards. The woman is either insanely generous or generously insane. Either being fine.
‘You Know Where to Find Me’ peppers the 14 track smorgasbord; Heap’s trademark vocals layering a soft, echoed keyboard, and off we go. The immediacy of her melody is clear; I could listen to Imogen Heap sing post-it-notes and fall asleep happy. Unfortunately that’s almost what she does, and as the lyrics clunk along over a throbbing cacophony I start mentally editing. “You could be screaming drunk, well I’ve got my bad days too.” Too wordy – abbreviate.
The second track, ‘Entanglement’, takes a decidedly different turn from the off – landing somewhere between an Electro Pop karaoke backing track and the House of Flying Daggers soundtrack. Lyrically, again, it loses me – with unfortunate couplets prodding my editorial snobbery; “On islands of cotton, taboos get forgotten.” A little easy.
Musically both tracks are beautifully crafted, and I’m engaged to hear more, but the over production and structural trickery set a precedent that’s a little indulgent. ‘The Listening Chair’, the third and most auto biographical track on Sparks, ruptures this vein with a hand clap (think pat-a-cake) recount of Imogen Heap’s life, from childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut to adolescent bullying and beyond. According to the press release, ‘The Listening Chair whizzes us through her first 35 years in 5 minutes and will be added to every 7 years with another minute of a cappella song,’ then proudly declares the song ‘will only be finished once she’s dead!’ A curious use of an exclamation mark, even for a publicist.
‘Cycle Song’ brings a brief instrumental interlude, with some captivating deep percussion driving a memorable eastern riff (some solid vocals would not have been missed here) then we’re back to the uber personal in ‘Telemiscommunications’ – a track centred around the awkwardness of peripatetic relationships. Funny, apt, honest; not altogether necessary.
Then the big moment arrives with ‘Lifeline’, a superbly frenetic beat behind simple, melodic keys. Heap’s vocals are clear and comfortable. I love it, it just works. I also discover it was the first track down, apparently inspired by ‘someone sending in the sound of a striking match.’ And whilst I’m not entirely sure why someone would do that, or why someone else would listen to someone having done that, but at just under the midway point on Sparks I am glad that they both did.
The album continues, as does the tweeking and layers of composition; again, it’s a little too much. Imogen Heap’s previous portfolio is often mature and meticulous, with her signature vocals making it as much sublime. But so far, on Sparks, the overwhelming restlessness seems to be winning over simplicity or clarity.
The latter half of the 14 track album jumps around more approaches and influences, from Detroit Electro Pop to North Indian wailing; it’s clever but disjointed. There are many moments, such as the solid melody on ‘Run-Time’ and the dénouement to ‘The Beast’, but nothing that pins me down in the way Imogen Heap has previously done.
Sparks is woefully proficient, and the word ‘painstaking’ comes up in my notes more than a couple of times, but it suffers from the burden of trying to over achieve. And whilst a talented and beautiful vocalist, Imogen Heap’s lyrics on Sparks enter that savage garden of prose only a handful can pull off. Likewise with the production, it feels as if she had trouble walking away; I see sleepless nights, obsessing over the perfect pitch or just which rickshaw sample to use.
Sparks’ deluxe package mirrors this (as does the amount of activity featured on the album press release – something the artist/label will have ultimately signed off) and the fact Imogen Heap was curating the Reverb Festival at The Roundhouse, including a month long installation called ‘Heap’s Giant Interactive Sonic Playground’, gives more credence to an artist in overdrive. What’s left in the wake is an overflowing endeavour; if you’re an Imogen Heap fan you’ll be belly full until Christmas. But after the forth repeat, ninth cup of airline coffee and second sock change, I start flicking though my back catalogue for ‘Angry Angel’ or ‘Hide and Seek’. I miss her songs; as clever as aspects of Sparks are, I want the simple melodies back.
And whilst Sparks is a professional musical tome, it’s arguably still more catalouge of good ideas lost in overzealous production. After listening for it for 2 ½ days in relined confinement, all I wanted was a little more leg room and actual songs (perhaps a foot spa).
Sparks, the fourth solo album form Imogen Heap, is out for August 18th. For more on Imogen Heap, visit http://www.imogenheap.com
To find out more about the deluxe box set visit, http://www.imogenheap.com/deluxeboxset