Release date: 18th August 2014
Label: Megaphonic Records
Ever-busy, yet far from prolific, by 2014 it had been half a decade since Imogen Heap’s last full album, the Grammy Award-winning Ellipse. Belated follow-up Sparks was in production – and lingering in pre-release hell – for three-and-a-half of those, and finally saw the light last summer, self-issued on her own label.
A concept album comprising 14 individual concepts, each “heapsong” was either commissioned or inspired by a different location or idea, whether that be a trip to Beijing as an artist in residence, a jogging app for mobile phones, a soundscape of a first date or a chair which records fans’ answers to a specific question. Recorded one at a time between 2011-13 (and initially released as singles as she went), it is no wonder that when bolted together these songs lack a cohesive flow.
Incorporating numerous genres as diverse as dreamy indie pop and stark electronica, Sparks‘ only loosely familiar element is the intermittent reoccurrence of Eastern themes, interwoven into three or four tracks when Imogen travelled.
It’s certainly ambitious – Imogen has never shied away from stretching herself – and there is some gold in here (Run Time, Lifeline, Entanglement, You Know Where to Find Me and Propellor Seeds are personal highs), but some of the more experimental tracks do fall shy of enjoyable. Neglected Space (a spoken word ‘poem’ from the perspective of disused buildings) and The Listening Chair (condensing the first 35 years of Imogen’s life into five minutes of hollered memories) grind any momentum to a halt and frustrate in their overlong sluggishness.
Personally, the ordering of the songs doesn’t sit well. For all its harmonious, piano-led sweetness, YKWtFM does not an impactful opener make. The same can be said for choosing the beautiful-but-airy Propeller Seeds as the ‘epic’ finale. Flitting from concept-to-concept makes for a staccato listening experience which I would forgive if the songs were presented in production order, but they aren’t; this order was purposefully chosen.
It pains me not to be bestowing indisputable praise upon an artist I adore; particularly one who is constantly innovating and challenging both herself and the mainstream. Some songs may simply take time to settle in (especially considering the length of time we have been living with some of the singles in isolation), however it is still evident to me that Sparks is not Imogen’s best work.