In the world of music, we’re used to flops and hits; there’s rarely room for anything in between. The economics of the industry make it tough for established musicians to actually experiment without the risk of alienating their fans. The scientific method dictates that there is no such thing as a useless experiment; there is always something to learn, even if your results are just a big mess. Imogen Heap’s fourth album, Sparks, is that sort of experiment
; : it’s a mess, but a fascinating one, and the moments that work are stunningly beautiful.
You remember Imogen Heap, right? At the very least you remember “Hide and Seek”, the ballad from her Grammy-winning 2006 album Speak For Yourself. “Hide and Seek” became infamous thanks to its use in a heavy-handed episode of the primetime soap The O.C., and again when Jason Derulo sampled it in his song “Whatcha Say”, in a classic case of kicking something when it was already down. If you chuckled or shuddered and then moved on, you may not have heard the rest of Speak For Yourself, but I did; it was one of my favourite albums during a tumultuous first year of university, when I was 18 and exploding with emotions. Unfortunately, Heap’s 2009 followup Ellipse was unbearably dull. While she may have wanted to avoid creating another meme-ready tune, Ellipse lacked the raw emotion and daring compositions that made songs like “Hide and Seek” so iconic in the first place. For a long time it seemed as though “Hide and Seek” would be Imogen Heap’s death rattle, the song that both made her famous and killed her career. Now comes Sparks, an album four years in the making and crowd-sourced with help from Heap’s fans—a true labour of love from an artist who has gleefully run out of fucks to give when it comes to the Internet’s opinion.
The opening track, “You Know Where to Find Me”, is a passionate declaration of love to a somewhat destructive partner, promising that “you could be screaming drunk / Well I’ve got my bad days too / I’m gonna be here for you.” It’s very different from the crisp production of “Headlock” on Speak for Yourself. Heap’s previous albums have always been tightly constructed, even when they appeared chaotic; Sparks has very little direction by comparison, and feels like a piece of freeform concept art. That doesn’t mean the songs are bad; Heap is still an impressively talented songwriter. Songs like “Me the Machine” are just as brilliant as her previous work, just a little looser—charmingly cluttered instead of impeccably clean. She can still stop you in your tracks with darker songs like “The Beast” and the glorious “Neglected Space”, which plays like “Hide and Seek”’s evil twin.
“The Listening Chair” is probably the best example of Sparks‘ tone. The five-and-a-half-minute song tells the story of Heap’s life from childhood to present day, and it’s not finished; she plans to add one minute of a cappella music to it every seven years. “The Listening Chair” opens with a sing-song tune that covers the simple joys of early childhood (“Cat, blue, piano / are just some of the things I like”), moves on to the pleasures and pains of growing up—bullying at school, complaints about classes, and the complex social strata of teenage girls—and builds to a cacophony of sound and layered melodies which asks, “Who am I now?”
Not everything works on Sparks. While Heap flirts with Indian musical styles throughout the album, “Minds Without Fear” (guest starring Mumbai-based composers Vishal-Shekhar) plunges headlong into the genre and consequently feels very out of place. Heap’s lackadaisical approach to her lyrics results in lines that hit your ear with a clunk every so often, especially on the Deadmau5-produced “Telemiscommunications”. While you’d expect to hear his trademark dance-ready influence, the track is instead a ballad about the everyday conversation between lovers, and feels like an opportunity wasted.
When I started taking notes for this review a few weeks ago, I felt that Sparks had a lot of flaws; but the more I listen to it, the more I enjoy its idiosyncrasies. There’s real emotional depth here, an honesty that’s not normally found in electro-pop
. If you’re willing to give it a few listens, Sparks will grab hold of you, and you’ll find yourself giddily enjoying even the weirdest parts of the ride.