Imogen Heap is, it goes without saying, one of a kind.
With a Grammy Award-winning album under her belt, and two more equally established records in her back catalogue, the past five years have been something as a sonic and aural experiment for Ms Heap, who has trekked her way across Bhutan, China and India to inspire her latest collection of songs, titled Sparks. However, if you peel back all the sonic fireworks and spectacle, are we left with something beautiful, or with an empty core?
Sparks is certainly, with all its faults and flaws, Heap’s most adventurous LP – it toys and experiments with global sounds and yet largely remains rooted to the ground through Heap’s wavering, near-ethereal vocals.
Heap’s increased focus on global-sounding music is prominent here with a significant chunk of the tracks being influenced by her journeys and travels across the Asian continent. ‘Minds Without Fear’ is a superb collaboration with bhangra and Indian music superstar Vishal-Shekhar, infusing bhangra and sitar with Heap’s ethereal, compelling vocals. This same global sound blossoms and bursts into life on other tracks – ‘The Beast’ rides on its Asian vibe while ‘Me The Machine’ is infused with a bright and emotional sensibility that evokes the Eighties at its finest.
Fortunately a lot of the ‘older’ songs hold up just as well as the more recently-released cuts. first single ‘Lifeline’ is still as dramatic and swirling, ‘Xizi She Knows’ has lost none of its joyous, fun energy, and ‘Propeller Seeds’ remains the bubbling, warm, utterly gorgeous closer that the album deserves.
Strangely some of the album’s most compelling songs are the ones where Heap’s talent for lyrics are diminished – the largely instrumental tracks ‘Climb to Sakteng’ and ‘Cycle Song’ are beautifully constructed pieces of music, the former an absorbing slice of ambient-pop, and the latter a motivational, powerful song that should be at the top of everyone’s gym playlists. Elsewhere, Heap goes to the other extreme – buzz track ‘Neglected Space’ has Heap robotically uttering the lyrics, her vocoder poetry set against the soft, spooky beat that evokes a home left to ruin, and ‘Entanglement’ is a radiant electropop ode to true love.
While Heap has never shied from sonic experimentation, the tracks on Sparks are a dramatic elevation; far from sticking to her tried-and-tested formula of indie ambient-pop that has proven so useful, Heap goes into the deep confessional with ‘Listening Chair’ which is more an autobiography set to music, rather than typical album filler; most unusual of all is her collaboration with Deadmau5 on ‘Telemiscommunications’ which undulates and pulses in a direction wholly unexpected to Heap’s longtime fans.
Sparks is, when all is said and done, an artist’s album. There are no immediate ‘singles’ on the album and in parts, the overwhelming emotion of the whole thing, swerving from saccharine joyfulness to melancholia within a hair’s breadth of one another, and even the use of flutes, chimes, and every New Age musical cliche might grate on some. In the end, however, Sparks is a wildly inventive, well-constructed album created by someone whose passion for it is bones-deep, and in the age of throwaway, soulless pop tunes, many of us would take Heap’s brand of invested, heart-bracing music any given day.