The Good: Impressive and almost entirely unique musical sound, Most of the lyrics
The Bad: Duration, Some less inspired lyrics
The Basics: Originality blends with mediocrity on Imogen Heap's Ellipse, an arguably wonderful album brought down by a few cliches.
For those who do not check such things - as I seldom do when they do not pertain to me - I recently came into possession of an Ipod Touch (reviewed here!). When that happened, I was granted an opportunity to try a few things that I had never had a chance to do before. The first of these opportunities was to try a digital download of an album. I was excited, in no small part because it meant that I would not have to go through the labor of copying the c.d. into MP3 format, it would come appropriately configured from the beginning. So, when I looked through the iTunes store and had a chance to select, I picked Ellipse by Imogen Heap.
Imogen Heap is a fairly obscure British musical artist whose work I was introduced to over a year ago by a dear friend who moved away. She had Heap's album Speak For Yourself (reviewed here!) and while I enjoyed it, it was only recently I actually began craving it. My wife, it turns out, listens to me extraordinarily well and as a result bought me a copy of that album for my impending birthday. So, I decided to go and see what Heap has been up to since and I bought her new album Ellipse.
With twenty-six songs clocking out at 97:30 (as a digital download, the same amount spread over two discs on c.d. at the thirteen song mark), the two-disc Ellipse is distinctly the work of artist Imogen Heap. The album, which is characterized as an "electronic" album, is the creative concept and execution of Imogen Heap. Heap wrote all of the lyrics and she programmed all of the instruments. As well, Imogen Heap is the sole credited producer of the album, so it is hard to argue that this is anything but the intended musical vision of Heap herself.
That musical vision is eclectic, though it is not an incredibly audacious album. Ellipse has moments - the first single "First Train Home" being a perfect example - where it is a very traditional pop-dance album. But beyond that, the songs are interesting and populated by produced bells and keyboards. "Wait It Out" is a more traditional pop ballad, but even the socially conscious "Bad Body Double" which has great lyrics sounds very typical pop/techno. Even so, songs like "Tidal" use a wide array of instrumental sounds (given that it is all produced, it is tough to call it an actual instrument, though it sounds like flutes at times) and Imogen Heap's Ellipse is easy to listen to and enjoy.
Instrumentally, the most creative track might well be "Aha!" "Aha!" features rapidly moving low strings creating a spooky bassline (very Stanislas) and Heap's vocals coming out more as a moan, which enhances the creepy vibe of the song. "Aha!" has a very untraditional, but classical (as in Classical music) sound to it. In this way, Imogen Heap is incredibly creative even when she still has songs like "Earth" which is a very simple pop-dance number and "Little Bird" which is a slow, quiet ballad in a surprisingly boring tradition.
Vocally, Imogen Heap probably would have scored higher if I had less experience with musical artists. Heap has a great soprano voice, but she uses it in ways that are either entirely original or sadly derivative. So, for example, on "Tidal," Heap's vocals go for lower and more powerful, instantly evoking the sound of Annie Lennox from her album Songs Of Mass Destruction. By contrast, on "Swoon," she sings high and fast and the song is delightfully original. Inarguably, she has a great voice and on Ellipse, she allows it to be heard. Unlike songs on Speak For Yourself, she does not rely on production elements to alter her vocals and she has a beautiful, natural voice.
That voice articulates her own lyrics wonderfully, though with a noticeable British accent. Ellipse is a decently-diverse album as far as the content of the songs go, though it does seem to be more intended for adults than children. Heap unabashedly explores sexuality on songs like "Swoon" and "Between Sheets." She has a healthy expression of desire and she is playful when she sings out "You and me between sheets / It just doesn't get better than this / The many windswept yellow Stickies of my mind / Or the molten, emotional front line / I couldn't care less I'm transfixed in this absolute bliss" ("Between Sheets"). She is fun, free and at the same time emotionally involved.
Rather impressively, Imogen Heap also sings about issues like distorted body image ("Bad Body Double") and the excitement of being alive being crushed by infidelity ("Aha!"). But most of the songs are about love and relationships and fulfilling desires, which makes her more musically audacious songs seem more standard. The lyrics actually have the effect of making the songs seem more average than they might otherwise be.
That said, Heap has an astonishing ability for imagery. When she sings about wrestling with issues of fate, she makes it picturesque and melodical. Her lines "First the Earth was flat / But it fattened up when we didn't fall off / Now we spin laps around the Sun / Oh the gods lost 2-1 / The host of Heaven pointed out to us from lightyears away / We're surrounded by a billion galaxies / Things are not always, things are not always how they seem / Will you be ready" ("2-1")? Outside the repetition at the end of the song, "2-1" is poetic and well-constructed and makes for a song that is not the typical Top 40 pop rock.
At the end of Ellipse, that is what one is left with. It is easy to recommend the album because Imogen Heap is creating something unlike anything anyone else is producing now. But at the same time, where one song is instrumentally fresh, it seems to be lyrically or vocally stunted. Or, for example, where "Half Life" is lyrically powerful with its musical storysong of trying to figure out the science of love and relationships, it is musically pedestrian with a very traditional piano sound and Heap's vocals sound light and airy in a way that is very girlish. The album is erratic and while it has a good number of hits where Heap gets things right, she has at least as many where the album falls flat.
On disc 1, "The Fire" stands out as an instrumental track played on piano with a simulated fire. The disc 2 version of "The Fire" is just the sounds of a fire crackling and that is unimpressive at best. The first disc in this two-disc set is identical and the second disc, outside the fire noises for "The Fire" are the same songs as disc one, stripped of their vocals and lyrics.
It is easy to recommend the two-disc version of Ellipse because Imogen Heap is creating something unlike anything anyone else is producing now and her music is actually quite stunning. Still, where one song is instrumentally fresh, it seems to be lyrically or vocally stunted. Or, for example, where "Half Life" is lyrically powerful with its musical storysong of trying to figure out the science of love and relationships, it is musically pedestrian with a very traditional piano sound and Heap's vocals sound light and airy in a way that is very girlish. The album is erratic and while it has a good number of hits where Heap gets things right, she has at least as many where the album falls flat.
The best songs are "Bad Body Double" (Disc 1) and "Aha!" (Disc 2) the low points are the less memorable lullaby "Little Bird" (Disc 1) and "The Fire" (Disc 2).
For other strong female artists, please check out my reviews of:
Timbre - Sophie B. Hawkins
Left Of The Middle - Natalie Imbruglia
Laws Of Illusion - Sarah McLachlan
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.