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Sparks Are Gonna Fly

Imogen Heap's Brilliant New Work

8/20/14

I could write an entire book about Imogen Heap’s Sparks.

I won’t, don’t worry. I will try to contain my effusiveness to 1,500 words or so. But just know that I could do it. For the past week, I’ve been immersing myself in the full digital wonderment of this record, letting it surround me, floating in it. It’s that kind of record, one with a physical presence so nuanced that you could live within it for weeks and not hear everything. I’ve heard Sparks probably 20 times now, and I’m sure I haven’t heard every bit of aural detail Heap put into it.

Luckily, I don’t foresee getting tired of it. I’ve been an Imogen Heap fan for many years, dating back to her time as one half of Frou Frou, and this is easily her most confident, most accomplished record. It’s also her strangest, which seems to go hand in hand with unfettered creativity. Heap has always been an idiosyncratic artist, but Sparks blows that notion through the sky. She is one of a kind. There is no one else like her, no one else on Earth who would have made this record.

And there are very few who could make it. Imogen Heap is the antithesis of the modern female pop star – she creates her records almost entirely on her own, painstakingly crafting the sounds she expertly weaves together. She spends weeks in isolation, emerging into the light carrying new pieces of beautiful electronic wonderment unlike any you’ve ever heard. Every Heap album is stunningly well crafted, and I imagine her twiddling knobs for hours just trying to get one woodblock sound to strike her ears properly.

It sounds obsessive, but the process belies the final product. Imogen Heap music leaps from the speakers, full of boundless joy, unable to keep to itself. It’s the kind of thing that rushes at you in a bewildering torrent at first, your mind unable to keep up with everything it’s hearing. There’s so much here, and it all bursts forth at you in full color. Beyond just the physical sound, though, Heap’s songs are immaculate – they would be strong enough to hold up without all of this sonic craft surrounding them. But that wouldn’t be nearly as extraordinary.

The story of Sparks is just as amazing as the music. It’s been five years since Heap’s last album, the wonderful Ellipse, and she spent those years shaking up both her life and her music-making formula. She began creating experiences for herself, collaborations and journeys and musical ideas, and set a goal of releasing one new piece every three months for three years. Every song on Sparks has a story, a hook, an idea underpinning it, which makes them all easy to talk about, and instantly intriguing.

And though each song was released individually, with a corresponding video, the best part about the Sparks project to me is that the album is not an afterthought collection of tracks with no connecting thread. It’s clear now that Sparks is here that the album was the end goal all along. These songs, wildly diverse as they are, sit next to each other nicely – there is certainly something of a scattered feel at first, but every Imogen Heap album feels that way before you get to know it. Once Sparks sinks in, it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the running order, the connections between tracks, the flow. Sparks is an album, albeit one with a fascinating genesis.

Because of the nature of this record, it is easily Heap’s most collaborative. She deliberately tried to break free of her traditional method of working – essentially, locking herself in a studio for weeks at a time – by reaching out to fans and fellow musicians in other parts of the world. The first of these songs to be released, “Lifeline,” contains samples culled from nearly 900 submissions by fans. Heap put out a call for interesting sounds, and received a multitude, from burning matches to garage doors. She incorporated dozens of these into the track, but the genius of “Lifeline” is that you’d never know it. The textures never distract from the amazing song. (The repeated “keep breathing,” and the bass line that follows, is one of my favorite Sparks moments.)

For gentle opener “You Know Where to Find Me,” Heap recorded on 13 different pianos located in fans’ homes around the world. It’s a perfect first track – it slips in like a summer breeze, but builds almost imperceptibly, and before you know it, it’s wielding a remarkable amount of force. It’s almost an entire album unto itself, such is the journey it takes you on. Heap solicited about three dozen people to add their voices to the haunting, amazing spoken word track “Neglected Space.” This one sneaks out of the speakers and envelops you.

Heap’s voice is one of her greatest assets, and she usually includes an a cappella piece on her albums – she even scored an unlikely hit with one, “Hide and Seek,” 12 years ago. But she’s never done anything like “The Listening Chair.” In the later stages of development, Heap found herself unable to put her finger on exactly what her record needed. So she built a chair with video and audio recording capability, brought it on tour with her, and asked fans to sit in it and opine on what song remains to be written. The answer she went with was along the lines of “the song about your life.”

And so here it is. Each of the five minutes of “The Listening Chair” encapsulates seven years of Heap’s life – she was 35 when she finished it – and it’s a twisty, exhilarating ride. Every sound was made with her mouth, from percussion to low string sounds to all the incredible harmonies. I don’t even want to think about how many hours this took to put together. Even more extraordinary, Heap has promised to write another minute of this song every seven years, summing up her life in miniature. It’s a song that will not be finished until she dies. (Although I love the ending we have now – Heap asking “who am I now,” only to hear the question reflected back by dozens of people, voices stacked atop one another.)

Heap worked with Deadmau5 on “Telemiscommunications,” although you’d never know it – the song is a low-key breather amidst the mania. Winningly, it’s a song about failing to connect over cell phones and internet chats, and was crafted by two people who never met face to face. “Minds Without Fear” is a collaboration with Indian composers Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, famous for their film scores. The song is one of the most aggressive, sitars and Indian percussion sitting atop a dark beat as Heap’s voice intertwines with Dadlani’s and Ravjiani’s. The absolutely incredible “Xizi She Knows” incorporates field recordings of people Heap met during a trip to Hangzhou in China, wrapping them up in a whirlwind of beats and melody.

Heck, even the cover of Sparks is a collaboration – it’s an explosion of footprints, each one sent in by fans, heading out in every direction. But this isn’t to suggest that she never acted alone here. In fact, some of the finest moments on Sparks, including “The Listening Chair,” grew from her doing what she does – locking herself away and slaving over a computer. “Entanglement,” for instance, is the closest this album comes to a pop single. The song pulses and shimmies with a surprising sexiness as Heap coos, “Our body entanglement wants you all over me, me all over you…” The arresting strings add immeasurably.

The striking “Me The Machine” was performed on Mi.Mu gloves, an invention Heap helped create. A sleeker version of Steve Hogarth’s MIDI gloves, these capture movements and hand gestures and turn them into commands for sequencing computers. The song itself is one of the album’s most immediate, wafting in on gentle electronics and soaring through its winsome melody. It leads into “Run-Time,” a wonderful tribute to ‘80s pop music that puts most to shame, and includes a delightful, skipping coda.

The two instrumental tracks, the propulsive “Cycle Song” and the lovely “Climb to Sakteng,” were composed for a film score. Amazingly, they improve the flow of the album rather than hampering it, with “Cycle” clearing the stage for the lower-key “Telemiscommunications,” and “Sakteng” flowing into the similarly lovely “The Beast.” That song is the most unlikely collaboration with B.o.B. you’ll ever hear, a sky-high menacing dirge that ends up gathering an absolutely huge amount of power.

The album ends with one of its most extraordinary achievements. After 13 songs of immersive detail, Heap plays with 3-D audio effects on “Propeller Seeds,” an absolutely magical piece of music. The chiming instruments leap out at you, but the sounds feel like movies in your mind – the bursting rip as she sings “I’m growing roots through my toes,” or the jazz band party that happens in the middle eight. You can practically see this song happening in front of you. The fact that it’s a beautiful piece of music doesn’t hurt in the slightest.

“Where does this story go, what does this story hold for us,” Heap sings in the final seconds of Sparks. And after this, well, it could go anywhere. Sparks feels to me like a great leap forward from an artist who was already flirting with genius. It’s a stunning achievement, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard, and a testament to the power of stepping outside your comfort zone. It’s also a remarkably moving album, all that technology harnessed in the service of an emotional ebb and flow that works brilliantly. Listening to it all in a row is somewhat overwhelming, but it leaves me giddy.

Sparks is easily the best record Imogen Heap has made, and if you know her work, you know that’s saying something. It’s also quite easily one of the best records of 2014. I don’t know how many other ways I can say it. You should hear this, and you should hear this now.

Next week, a treatise on consistency with Bill Mallonee, Spoon and the Gaslight Anthem. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.