Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ambitious Generation, Mixed Results: Imogen Heap’s Sparks!

The Good: Duration, Voice, Overall sound
The Bad: Utter lack of distinction for most of the tracks (over-familiar)
The Basics: If Sparks were Imogen Heap’s only album, it might have been a masterpiece, but for fans, it will simply seem like more of the same . . .

It is never a good sign when, halfway through my first listen of an album, I find myself asking “Have I heard and reviewed this album before?” Yet, such is how it was with Sparks, the latest album from Imogen Heap. To cut to the chase, the fundamental problem with Sparks is that the album is entirely familiar to anyone who has heard any other full album by Imogen Heap. The creation of the album, a factor I never consider when I review the resulting art, was the result of an ambitious creative concept. Unfortunately, what Imogen Heap ended up producing was an album that might feature more samples than her prior album, Ellipse (reviewed here!), but it lacks a single. After eight listens to the album, I could not relate a single tune; they are all that indistinct.

I write this as one who has largely enjoyed the prior works of Imogen Heap. I have a very positive association with the music of Imogen Heap; a friend of mine tuned me in to Speak For Yourself (reviewed here!) at a time when it completely spoke to all I was going through. So, when I finally got my hands on Sparks, I found myself disappointed. I knew of the existence of Sparks from when Imogen Heap first started plugging her super-deluxe boxed set, but it took until the holidays for me to actually get my hands on it. When the most favorable thing I can say about an album is, “I’m glad I did not shell out for the super-fan version,” it’s a pretty sad commentary.

With fourteen tracks, clocking out at 59:34, Sparks is an album that is the result of Imogen Heap pushing herself to create tracks on a specific timeline with sound clips provided to her by her fans. The result is an album that sounds like Heap’s other albums, but with some auditory “found art” mixed in. In pushing herself to make the album this way, Imogen Heap made some songs that lack real thematic resonance – her song “Telemiscommunication” about calling a partner while at an airport is the pop music equivalent of a comedian’s “What’s with airline food” type joke and “The Listening Chair” is little more than a list of activities that occupy her day – and have almost no replayability. For all of the tools at her disposal, Sparks is entirely the responsibility of the artist Imogen Heap. She wrote all the lyrics, composed all of the music, and produced the album. Outside having guest vocalists on two of the tracks, Imogen Heap provides all of the lead vocals as well. In many ways, Sparks is a resounding success of artistic integrity and independence from the corporate machine.

Unfortunately, outside a few moments of intro or outro on a track, Sparks is largely made up of indistinct music that blends together track to track. There is not a single memorable tune on the album (I cringe to think what the instrumental-only version of the songs sounds like) and were it not for the exceptionally loud chord at the end of “Propeller Seeds” (seriously, it woke up my sleeping cats each time it hit!), one would not know where the album began or ended when they play it on continual replay. While the album opens with the piano-driven “You Know Where To Find Me,” the song is not one of Imogen Heap’s more memorable tunes and the album soon devolves into deep chords and synth instrumentals accompanying the true instrument on the album: Imogen Heap’s voice. The only real exception is the string accompaniment on “Xizi She Knows,” but the Chinese instrumental accompaniment only seems to be present for the opening and closing of the song, sublimated the rest of the track by the other elements mixed in.

Imogen Heap’s voice on Sparks is predictably wonderful. Heap has incredible vocal range, going from her husky low vocals at one moment to her soaring soprano in the same song. Imogen Heap is articulate and easily understood on Sparks, making it easy to fall in love with the sound of her voice; fortunately, she produces the album so her vocals dominate even the Electronica instrumentation on songs like “Entanglement.” But even there, Imogen Heap’s vocals sound breathy and familiar, like we’ve heard the lines before, even when they are all new (“Entanglement” seems like a b-side from Ellipse).

Sparks suffers on the lyrical front because Imogen Heap presents an album where she is making random statements and stringing them together. The album lacks a sense of cohesion; instead, it is a collection of murky singles that blend from one to another. Outside the delightful, overt, sexuality of “Entanglement,” Heap does not land a statement that both sounds good as poetry and is musically interesting. Imogen Heap continues to have moments of amazing poetry, with a high level of diction like “Adventures in the multiverse / effervescent candlelit closeness / Plus, I feel like I've just got the hang of this living thing” (“Lifeline”).

Sadly, songs like “The Listening Chair” early on the album make it hard to want to continue to listen to Sparks. When Heap sings “”I can moonwalk, build castles, play ping pong, talk to animals, / hold my breath for a really long time…and tell the future / Are just six of the things I can do / And the more I can fit of these things in my day / The better I sleep at night (“The Listening Chair”), it is hard for listeners not to cringe. The song is like the Family Guy joke where Stephen King pitches a book based on what he sees in front of him at a pitch meeting. By the time Imogen Heap sings the storysong aspects like “Wonder bra thrown ‘round the German classroom / You wouldn’t understand / I’ll never live it down” (“The Listening Chair”), most listeners will have given up on the track.

Unfortunately, Sparks does not get better as it goes along. Despite a slightly different sound for the opening of “Run-Time,” listeners are greeted with the lines “Sparks might fly, in no time. / It’s a delayed reaction of the third kind” (“Run-Time”), which are not Imogen Heap’s best.

And that’s pretty much the epitaph of Sparks: it’s not Imogen Heap’s best. Even if this were my first experience with Imogen Heap and the music did not sound so familiar to me, I suspect I would be disappointed by the lack of thematic resonance and intrigue that her other albums have had in spades.

The best track is “Entanglement,” the low point is the (mostly) spoken-word “Neglected Space.”

For other new music, please visit my reviews of:
Sucker - Charli XCX
Little Secret - Nikki Yanofsky
Nostalgia - Annie Lennox


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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