There are few artists around today that push themselves creatively quite like London singer-songwriter Imogen Heap. Even one of her most well-known records, the mesmerisingly beautiful Hide And Seek, sees her sing through a vocoder that makes it almost impenetrable to some. Yet with every album Heap has taken her sound to another level, with 2009’s Grammy Award-winning third album, Ellipse, her best received to date.
Five years on from that critical success and Heap is back with her latest, and most experimental, record – one which was almost three years in the making. The recording process for her fourth solo album, Sparks, has seen Heap push the boundaries of what is normally expected of an artist, with the 36-year-old collaborating with everyone from her fans to passers-by and filmmakers to create the end result.
“The album began with someone sending in the sound of a striking match for what became Lifeline in March 2011,” Heap said, about the origins of Sparks. “I then dived into the most immense, intense creative two-and-a-half years of my life that took me all over the planet.” If it sounds a little bit crazy, then that’s probably because it is. It is an album truly without limits, with Heap recording everywhere from the River Thames to the Himalayas.
As a result, Sparks lacks some of the cohesiveness of Heap’s previous works, but considering the scale of her ambition that can be forgiven. The album opens with the piano-driven You Know Where To Find Me, which is a relatively gentle introduction, compared to the twists and turns that follow. It demonstrates Heap’s raw talent, with the absence of electronic sounds allowing her glorious vocal to take centre stage.
From there on in, though, things get much more complicated, with Heap making use of a myriad of sounds in a way that only she knows how. Entanglement is built on a bed of synths, with a variety of electronic bleeps and elegant strings adding texture to the song, while The Listening Chair is a fascinating autobiographical reflection on Heap’s life up until present day, using her full vocal range in the process.
“Cat, blue, piano/ are just some of the things I like/ so the more that I see of them in my day/ the better I sleep at night,” she sings during the song, which she will apparently add another minute to every seven years. Telemiscommunications – a collaboration between Heap and producer deadmau5 – is another that stands out, with its minimal tapping beat and swarming atmospherics providing the perfect accompaniment to Heap’s always engaging vocal.
As the album progresses, the ideas behind each song get more and more ambitious. On Me The Machine Heap uses her ground-breaking musical gloves – which she demonstrates during the incredible video for the track – to create a wondrous, melancholic ballad, while Run-Time is a driving slice of electropop that is linked to a jogging app that responds to your workout (yes, really).
For all the innovations and experiments that Heap weaves into Sparks, it must be said that not everything comes off. Cycle Song, which is one of two tracks conceived 5,000 feet up in the Himalayas, is a reasonably efficient track, but one that feels slightly unnecessary in the grand scheme of the album. While Xizi She Knows is another that sounds as though Heap has tried to do too much, with her own spoken word clashing chaotically with excerpts of Chinese singing.
However, these are merely trivial issues with an album that somehow manages to take numerous different projects and turn them into something meaningful. Nothing exemplifies this better than the stunning Lifelines, which crowd-sources numerous audio samples submitted by fans to produce a response to the Sendai earthquake. By the end of Sparks, there is really nothing else left to do but marvel at the brilliance of Imogen Heap.