Album Reviews

Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxymore

(Sony) UK release date: 21 October 2022

As a tribute to ‘musique concrète’ exponent Pierre Henry, the French synth wizard’s latest is a fitting piece of work, even if an unremittingly bleak one

Jean-Michel Jarre - Oxymore He may be in his mid-70s, but Jean-Michel Jarre remains powered by a restless desire to innovate. The title of his new album hints at that, but with Oxymore described in promotional material as ‘entirely conceived and composed in multi-channel and binaural sound’, he is cast in familiar ground he has occupied since the late 1970s.

The album launches a new virtual reality universe known as ‘Oxyville’. Credited with inventing a new medium of immersive audio, it is heavily indebted to and influenced by Jarre’s compatriot and friend Pierre Henry, a key exponent of ‘musique concrète’, who died in 2017. The strength of their connection is evident in the dedication. But with the sonic advances in place, what does Oxymore actually sound like?

First off, headphones or surround sound are an essential companion, otherwise it’s like driving a Ferrari in first gear. Once the conditions are established, a remarkable experience lies in store. This is confirmed as soon as the falling rain and crackling fireplace of the brief prelude Agora make themselves known. The atmospherics segue into the title track, which uses quarter tones to create an ominous atmosphere. Lean musical lines interact in constant motion around the listener’s central position, placing them in an AI world that even on primitive headphones has a startling effect, the minimal melodic fragments creating an unsettling panorama.

The tone is set for the album, with stark, dystopian images and bleak vistas suggesting a cityscape akin to that experienced in Blade Runner. Sonic Land bears this out, its nervy pizzicato strings linking with bilious bass sounds in a collage of darkly shaded music. Only the occasional glimpse of warmth can be seen through the warm synthesizer chords above.

Zeitgeist drives forward with monotone urgency and heavily affected vocals, finding a mechanical energy that spills over to Crystal Garden. Here the energy is cumulative, and the climax feels like the steps of T-1000 in Terminator 2 as the drums increase in speed. Brutalism also ploughs a similarly dark furrow, while the ominously knocking drum of Epica drives for the finish, snatches of vocal and melody scattering to the left and right of the sonic picture. Eventually they combine, whirling together to a dark climax.

Jarre’s imagery is vivid, the multidimensional effects repeatedly impressing, but there is very little in the way of lasting melodic content this time around. The bleak pictures of Animal Genesis bring to mind the weight of John Murphy’s music for 28 Days Later, while Sex In The Machine introduces convincing contemporary rhythms as part of the mood, but neither hold in the mind outside of the album. The music may be well ahead of the game, but the emotional effect – as with many experiences of artificial intelligence – is neutralised.

The outlook may be leaden, but it remains refreshing and inspiring to see the relish with which Jean-Michel Jarre continues to seek and conquer new challenges. No half measures or quarters are given, and as a tribute to Pierre Henry it is a fitting piece of work indeed. Yet the lack of human feeling continues to be a problem, and the unremitting bleakness of Oxymore – though accurate for our age – makes it an album for admiration rather than love.

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