In Sparks, Imogen Heap returns with her fourth solo album, three years in the making and possibly her most adventurous offering yet. With her track record for innovation in music, and especially for marrying human emotion with leading-edge technology beyond gimmickry, Heap sets her own bar high. On successive listens, it’s difficult not to be impressed with the results; there is such silkiness to Heap’s music that it can initially drape itself over you with its sheer conviviality. It’s a challenge to listen intently, to absorb the myriad strands she weaves together, so repeat exposure is both necessary and ultimately rewarding.
In contrast to her previous albums, in which several individual songs stood out and invited a “top that” response, Sparks works on a far more holistic level. This one might not have a song quite as extraordinary as “Hide and Seek” or as plainly beautiful as “Just for Now”, but it has grand scope and inspirational human connection thanks to the global journey the artist took in piecing it together. The footprints of collaborators and fans alike are evident from the striking match that sparks off “Lifeline” to the Himalayan folk sound collage of “Climb to Sakteng”. The future is underwritten in “Me the Machine”, aided by Heap’s amazing gesture-orchestrated Mi.Mu Gloves.
Heap’s journey starts near home with a song referencing London’s River Thames, “You Know Where to Find Me”, which is imbued with trademark flowing piano and layered vocals featuring those familiar high-low runs of hers. The river is a constant for one seeking calm: “Enough is enough/ ‘Cause life’s sweet assemblages are quick to driftwood away/ Be still with me.” In contrast to her music, which is richly veined and generously accessorized, lyrically Heap paints a picture without filling in all the color. Her words tumble out in staccato lines, a stream of consciousness to befit a busily creative mind.
More than any song here, “The Listening Chair”, a charming, potted history of Imogen Heap’s first 35 years, underlines that this is a record to experience in its entirety. By the time of concluding track “Propeller Seeds”, via excursions to Bhutan, India, China, and locations closer to home, life has turned full circle. This one does feel personal, a love song as expectant as the soon-to-be mother herself: “Where does this story go?/ What does this story know?/ What does this story hold … for us?”
Essential Tracks: “The Listening Chair”, “Climb to Sakteng”, and “Propeller Seeds”