Imogen Heap has always been a unique bird. She’s one of the only singers I know who had a solo career before being part of a group. Her most famous song features her singing a cappella through a vocoder. So when she embarked on her latest project, in which she set out to release a song every three months, before bringing them all together into an album, many were excited to see her embark on yet another unconventional journey. Because the genius of her music is that while it’s unique and original, it’s also quite accessible. It doesn’t veer off into the weird avant-garde hyperspace of someone like Björk, to whom I’ve seen her compared. Imogen gently pushes at the edges of pop music, challenging her listeners to broaden their musical horizons ever so slightly, without us realizing she’s doing it.
That approach is readily apparent on Sparks, which has a little bit of everything on it. There are electronica-style songs (“Entanglement,” “Run-Time”), piano-driven songs (“You Know Where to Find Me”), instrumental songs (“Cycle Song” & “Climb to Sakteng”), and spoken-word songs (“Neglected Space”). There’s even a song that she invented an instrument for. Throughout the making of Sparks, Heap was perfecting a pair of gloves that one could play by making gestures, enabling her to literally make music out of thin air. This culminates in the song “Me the Machine.” Fittingly, the song glides through the air with a silky-smooth sound. Through the course of listening to this album, one realizes just how multitalented she really is. She even flexes her creative muscle in the box set released with the album, which contains a ticket to soundcheck at one of her shows. The ticket is made of paper which she made by taking an item associated with the making of each song and grinding them up in a blender.
One might think that an album conceived in such a piecemeal way, one song at a time, would lack any kind of cohesion, and just simply be a collection of songs, a “greatest hits of the last two years,” if you will. But that is not at all the case here. There are some common threads running through the album that hold it together. For instance, many of the songs incorporate everyday sounds, such as “Lifeline,” in which Heap asked her fans to send in “sound seeds” from their everyday life, which she stitched together into an interesting song (similarly, the album art is a mosaic of footprints that she asked her fans to send in). “Xizi She Knows,” also takes this approach, as it features sounds she recorded during a single 24-hour period in Hangzhou, China. Heap’s trips abroad also inform songs such as “Minds Without Fear,” a collaboration with Indian duo Vishal-Shekhar that is probably my favorite song on the album.
The stories behind the lyrics of Sparks are sometimes even more fascinating than the songs themselves. “Neglected Space” is written from the perspective of an abandoned building, and was released in conjunction with the restoration of a formerly neglected walled garden in Bedfords Park in Heap’s native London. “You Know Where to Find Me” is written from the perspective of the Thames River, with its lyrics arising out of peoples’ answers when asked what the river means to them. Heap continued the crowdsourcing element with “The Listening Chair,” in which she asked people if there were any songs they felt were missing from the world. The result was a song that recaps different stages of Heap’s life, to which she will add a new verse every seven years. Not content to stop there, Heap teamed with Eric Whitacre (of virtual choir fame) to arrange a choral version of the song.
As you can tell, I have very few bad things to say about this album. The only song on it that I don’t feel measures up to the rest is “Entanglement.” It was originally written for the soundtrack of one of the Twilight movies (but didn’t make it), and is meant to be a romantic and sensual experience. But I don’t really get that vibe from the song, as the sounds she chooses to use in it don’t seem to jibe with the lyrics. But if this song is the weak link, that’s just another sign of how great the album is.
Imogen Heap proves herself to be a true Renaissance woman on Sparks, and as usual her music resists categorization. This one definitely merits a buy it rating, as it is one of the most interesting and multifaceted albums I’ve listened to in a long time. I also highly recommend looking up Heap’s YouTube channel and watching the “making of” videos for each song, as it will help you find new layers in the music and notice things that maybe you hadn’t before. Here are my track picks:
“Minds Without Fear”