Imogen Heap is an artist in the truest sense of the word and her latest record Sparks is irrefutable proof. From her 1998 debut I Megaphone to its two incredible successors – Speak For Yourself in 2005 and 2010’s Ellipse – there has always been a sense of wide-eyed adventurousness in every musical endeavour upon which she embarks (And this isn’t even counting the TV/Film soundtrack goldmine that was Details – the only album by her collaborative effort with Guy Sigsworth, Frou Frou). Couple this with the fact that everything she does is executed with an unparalleled effortlessness both technically and emotionally and it’s little wonder that she is adored by fans the world over.
The origins of Sparks trace back to an initiative called #Heapsongs when in 2011, Heap announced that she intended to release one song every three months with each being recorded over a two-week period. This makes it somewhat difficult to think of Sparks as a self-contained body of work; it’s more a living, breathing and evolving entity that came together gradually in front of its audience and has finally found a comfortable place to rest. It’s this kind of innovation (both in concept and production) that colours every single aspect of the record and as we’ve almost come to expect from anything bearing the Imogen Heap name, it fearlessly explores unchartered creative territory over its 14 tracks in too many ways to count.
The record opens with You Know Where To Find Me. Initially released back in November 2012, it dynamically fluctuates from truly intimate piano minimalism to undulating cinematic bombast on a whim and shows immediately why Heap’s albums are always worth the agonizingly long wait between them. The phrase “attention to detail” doesn’t really do justice to her completely justified perfectionist tendencies; maybe “affection for detail” is more appropriate. The string infused, carnally romantic trip-hop of Entanglement and the playfully intricate vocal layering and sense of humour on The Listening Chair lead into the urgent, authentically South-East-Asian flavoured Cycle Song with both vigour and grace. Each track is its own self-contained universe of sonic exploration, yet they seem to flow seamlessly and it’s great to see such diligence paid to the overall arc of an album that came together the way Sparks did.
Telemiscommunications – Heap’s collaboration with Toronto EDM behemoth deadmau5 – is powerfully stark, direct and disarmingly personal (not to insinuate that putting her life into her art is anything new for Imogen) and it leads into the oldest song on the record and de-facto first single, Lifeline. It’s a great cross-section of everything that makes her truly magnificent and the first half of the album rounds out with Neglected Space – an almost slam-poetry affair that is as melancholy as it is comforting and enticing.
The Bollywood drama of Minds Without Fear is lent some authenticity with an appearance from Indian film composing duo Vishal-Shekhar and the buoyant groove, synth mastery and technological allegory of Me The Machine both work wonderfully. The juxtaposition of the heavily arpeggiated programming and Imogen’s ever-languid, gorgeous vocal work on Run-Time lead into the truly stunning atmospherics of Climb To Sakteng and the “gently as we go” refrain of The Beast serves as a perfectly fitting battle-cry for the entire record.
Winding down with Xizi She Knows – the product of a six-week trip to Hangzhou which bridges Chinese traditionalism and Heap’s masterful command of all things electronic – Sparks draws to a close with Propeller Seeds. It’s a notable song for a few reasons – chiefly the fact that it began with a call to her fans to provide real-world samples to form the nucleus of the song and ultimately, the entirety of the record (she received nearly 900). Also, the auditory anomaly of “binaural recording” which gives an added dimension to recordings and the impression of three-dimensional sound. Oh, and it’s also an utterly gorgeous song with which to finish the record.
As ever, Imogen Heap took her sweet time to make Sparks and yet again, we wind up more grateful than we could’ve imagined for her doing so. It’s a truly breathtaking album start to finish and a testament to a woman who transcends any sort of preconceptions about what music can be. Better still, she does so with poise, aplomb and a progressive inquisitiveness that is shared by a tiny percentage of – if any – other artists working today.