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Ellipse

Written by: on October 4, 2009

Imogen Heap is one of those artists who will always hold a special place in my heart. My first gig as a Warwick student was seeing her live, and it remains one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. And her last album, Speak For Yourself, was and is one of the albums of the decade. It’s a masterpiece combining pop appeal with the kind of pure artistic craft rarely matched since the heyday of Pink Floyd.

Ellipse has a lot to live up to, but the good news is that Heap’s third album doesn’t disappoint. It’s not as good as Speak For Yourself (what could be?) but it’s still a wonderful, beautifully crafted record which combines the charming and ethereal in equal measure.

‘First Train Home’ begins this follow-up. We get all the familiar touches – eclectic instruments, immaculate production, and of course Heap’s fantastic voice, which alternates between bells chiming and a siren wailing until you are completely seduced. This is similar in feel to ‘Can’t Take It In’, her wonderful contribution to the first Narnia film, with lyrics that interweave seamlessly with the melody to create four minutes of perfection.

‘Wait It Out’ is equally elegant, if not quite so impressive. Heap is not departing violently from the sound of Speak For Yourself; indeed, the similarities with ‘Hide And Seek’ or ‘Just For Now’ may be annoying. But that’s okay: nobody asked her to make a punk album. And for all the familiarity, this still feels bracingly original, with an absolute peach of a middle eight. ‘Earth’ and ‘Little Bird’ are the first hints of departure in their unusual theme of domesticity. The former is an upbeat multi-tracked number, slightly over-cooked but still enjoyable. The latter is a minimalist list song with dark undertones. Both are surprising but reassuring that Heap hasn’t wasted the last four years selling out.

Having said that, we have ‘Swoon’. While still being interesting piece, it has the feeling of pandering about it. The beats feel forced and the vocal deliveries rushed, as if the producers were begging Heap for a rapid-fire single. Like ‘The Barry Williams Show’ on Peter Gabriel’s Up, the result is a fleetingly interesting mess, not what we expect from Heap at all.

‘Tidal’ is quick to reassure us, offering up a great song with enough charm to excuse the sampling from Crystal Castles. Like the opener it goes where it pleases, twisting and turning with a fitting resolution. ‘Between Sheets’ is another well-executed love song, with Heap taking a simple scene and layering sweet lyrics over a really good riff on piano. Anyone who remembers ‘Family Life’ by The Blue Nile will enjoy the sense of peace here: it celebrates contentment without being smug.

With ‘2-1’, however, we are a million miles from peace. In a few portentous sequences, we are transported out of our comfort zones into what could easily be the Fall. There is a sense of fearful uncertainty running through this, as if Heap’s fears about finding love are akin to the plight of Adam and Eve. Don’t think it’s pretentious however; the allegories are all there, but they are enshrined in great music rather than clunky Biblical references.

Finally into her stride, Heap can afford to experiment a bit. ‘Bad Body Double’ is a highly witty song, in which our singer is stalked by a different version of herself, carrying all the wear of the past few years. Vocally inventive and always surprising, it’s like a musical version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray. ‘Aha!’ is by and large a vocal workout, designed to show up Heap’s impressive range. It’s amusing enough, but not as good as ‘The Fire’. This is a short but slow instrumental with a real fire flickering in the background. With its passive yet enticing piano, it has a strangely David Sylvian feel.

The closing tracks are highlights, standing as both great songs and great album tracks. ‘Canvas’ is a beautifully crafted yet distressed song about a relationship in doubt, fusing together some stark piano with a suspicious synth drone. ‘Half Life’ flips this concept on its head, with the narrator being at fault this time. Accompanied by some great trumpet work, Heap breathes serenely across the mix as the album draws to a close.

This has been a bad year for comebacks. Tonight: Franz Ferdinand was a frustrating mess and Sounds Of The Universe was one long 1980s rip-off. But this is truly wonderful. Forget everything you’ve heard this year, or anything you will hear – this is the one album you simply have to have. It may not be flawless, but it’s a damn sight more honest, more beautiful and more inspiring than almost anything out there. Welcome back, Imogen Heap. Music has missed you.

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