Originally published on So So Gay on 19 August 2014.
It’s been five years since Imogen Heap released her last studio album, the critically acclaimed Ellipse, and she follows it up with the concept album Sparks. Three years in the making, crowd-sourced instruments and samples along the way, as well as seven singles released from the 14-track album, Sparks has had a fairly long journey already; but is it any good?
With sublime tracks like ‘First Train Home’ and ‘Hide and Seek’ in her back catalogue, we know she more than has the potential. All the key elements are present and correct – Heap’s wonderfully layered vocals; quirky conversational fragments within songs; the usage of experimental instruments and unusual samples to make music with – and while generally a winning formula, it doesn’t always come together to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Heap’s albums are always an interesting listen, with Sparks being no exception, and out of all her contemporaries there can’t be anyone more at-one with their craft than Imogen. However, this cutting edge, experimental faffing about with newfangled gizmos and gadgets does seem to occasionally get in the way of just writing a bloody good hook – though that’s not to say there aren’t many enjoyable moments on Sparks.
The impressive creation that is ‘The Listening Chair’, features nothing but Imogen’s voice to create the entire soundscape, and shows just how creative and talented she is. Meanwhile, the East Asian flavours on the instrumental tracks ‘Cycle Song’ and ‘Climb to Sakteng’ – set to be used on the soundtrack of the 2015 documentary film The Happiest Place, A Journey Across Bhutan – reveal Heap to have the necessary skills to score an entire movie, should the desire or opportunity ever come to her in the future.
Featuring the Indian music-director duo Vishal-Shekhar, the bhangra vibe of ‘Minds Without Fear’ marks an album highlight, and also one of the most commercially viable numbers on Sparks. Meanwhile, ‘Me the Machine’ is a wonderful example of the Heap sound, and joyfully ebbs and flows as she sings: ‘Soft circuits, jumping. Soft circuits, jumping / The PIN codes of happiness / Access denied / I’m switching to manual, switching to manual’.
Elsewhere, the unexpected pairing of Heap with Intel and Reality Jockey Ltd to create a jogging app (!) resulted in ‘Run-Time’, which manages to successfully overcome some noticeably cheaper sounding synths. There’s also ‘The Beast’, a classic Heap song about a soured relationship and, with some artistic input from B.o.B, manages to be one of the album’s enjoyably darker moments: ‘One by one, eyes become arctic / We’re becoming the beast / Sheer power in the heat of hate brings our army of two to its knees’.
As mentioned, Sparks isn’t without its faults. Some of the misfires include the meandering deadmau5 collaboration, ‘Telemiscommunications’, and the messy indulgence that is ‘Neglected Space’. However, with a genuinely creative and intellectually curious artist like Imogen Heap, who loves all things technological and innovative, it’s easy to overlook the occasional missteps to appreciate her output as a positive whole.
Undoubtedly an album that requires repeat listens to appreciate its more subtle artistic nuances, Sparks is a welcome return from Imogen Heap, even if it doesn’t quite match the high calibre of its predecessors.
Standout tracks: ‘Cycle Song’ / ‘Minds Without Fear’ / ‘Me the Machine’ / ‘Run-Time’