wears the trousers magazine


imogen heap: ellipse (2009)
August 20, 2009, 11:43 am
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: , , ,

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Imogen Heap
Ellipse ••½
Megaphonic / SonyBMG

Imogen Heap’s third solo album has been shrouded in great mystery for the last two years. She kept fans up-to-date with its progress through Twitter, but it seemed as though the more information she gave, the more mysterious it became. This is the case in hand with the album’s title – Ellipse. Ostensibly it is the shape found when dissecting a cone, a sort of elongated circle with flattened sides, but ‘ellipse’ also refers to the orbits planets make around the sun, eluding to the ‘two-body’ problem – the way a planet orbits a star, or a satellite the earth. Indeed the album’s cover depicts Heap with outstretched hands and a series of these geometrical shapes in light orbits above them. Ellipse therefore suggests an album about relationships, the way two people orbit each other, and the power struggles and manoeuvres that occur between them.

The saddening thing here is that the album might as well have been titled with the etymologically similar word ‘ellipsis’, which refers to the omission of words in a sentence replaced by dots, suggesting that something is missing. And there is something missing from Ellipse;  gone are the well-crafted melodies and strong percussive elements, gone is the heart at the centre of each song, and gone is the essential part of Heap’s self. For all its attempts at sonic innovation, envelope pushing and quirky lyrical content, Ellipse is an album bereft of new ideas and emotional impact, with only dots to be found between the few strong songs on here.

The album opens competently enough with First Train Home, perhaps the most commercial sounding song on the album and a sensible first single, though there is nothing of the melodic magic found on 2005’s Speak For Yourself or 2002’s Guy Sigsworth collaboration Details. But the problems with Ellipse are evident from the outset; her production has stayed almost identical to her last solo effort, and in four years she hasn’t really developed a new sound. The same gimmicks are here – the intricately looped backing vocals, the vocoders, the electro bleeps and shimmering synth palette – so that it all sounds rather stale and the listener is left wishing that someone would smash up her Apple Mac Pro. Second track ‘Wait It Out’ is a prime example of this, with its layered vocoders trying desperately to be this album’s ‘Hide & Seek’, even down to the shocking lyrical and melodic similarity in the opening lines of both; the latter’s “Where are we? What the hell is going on?” almost identical to the former’s “Where do we go from here? How do we carry on?” The problem is that the emotional punch in the stomach just isn’t in evidence here, despite the pretty chorus refrain.

Things go decidedly downhill from this point on with the rather awful ‘Earth’s vocal arrangement grating rather than ingratiating itself, as Heap berates a lover about not very much at all. The chorus refrain, “Stop this right away / Put that down and clean this mess up / End of conversation”, is a cringeworthy listen. Apart from the fact that Heap thinks nagging is appropriate lyrical content, it screams of a fatal error; Heap is becoming Alanis Morissette, who often uses this kind of meaningless, quotidian guff in her own lyric writing (exacerbated by the fact that Morissette poached Guy Sigsworth to produce her last and perhaps superior effort, Flavors of Entanglement). Alas, things do not improve on ‘Little Bird’, whose lyrics are simply a list of domestic objects and observations, suggesting that Heap should perhaps get out of her own living room when writing an album, though there are some interesting things going on sonically here.

It’s not until ‘Swoon’ and ‘Tidal’ that Heap seems to get back into her stride. ‘Swoon’ serves to remind the listener that what has been missing thus far on Ellipse is the dance music and drum’n’bass pretensions that marked her earlier albums, the percussive drive tending to pin down the effervescing sonic arrangements and the whispery falsetto of the vocals. ‘Swoon’ manages to marry a wonderfully old school two-step production with an innovative electro-pop sound, and at last reveals a chorus hook to get the teeth into. ‘Tidal’ opens with sweeping strings that underpin guitars and Heap’s best vocal on the album, all stuttering beats, ’80s synth-bleeps and swirling Eastern backing vocals that are simply gorgeous. ‘Between Sheets’ slows things down, but again calls to mind the poignant balladry of Speak For Yourself‘s ‘The Moment I Said It’ and ‘Just For Now’.

Unfortunately, the quality of this superb trilogy of songs is not sustained; ‘2-1’ again sounding Morissettian. Despite some wonderfully sonic elements in the sparse verses, its cliché-ridden chorus of “Things are not always how they seem’ mars its impact. ‘Bad Body Double’ is perhaps the weakest song, not only on the album but in the whole of Heap’s recording history. The awful contrivance of the lyrics – berating herself for sometimes looking podgy or having a few grey hairs and blaming it on a “bad body double” – are only made worse by the irritating arrangement and vocal delivery. ‘Aha!’ only compounds the injury, being an almost unlistenable cacophony of high-pitched screeching and chaotic production as Heap ‘lalala’s her way through a musical low point. Elsewhere, ‘The Fire’ is a short, negligible interlude of improvised piano and the sound of, well, a fire crackling in the background.

At the last minute, however, things pick up with the wonderfully brooding ‘Canvas’. Sounding like one of those mature, elegiac ballads Tori Amos can compose in her sleep, its rather lovely strings and haunting piano refrain suggesting the kind of album Heap could have produced if she’d resorted to more organic instrumentation. ‘Half-Life’, which almost steals a piano riff from Philip Glass’s much-used soundtrack to ‘The Hours’, is wonderfully vulnerable, and finally there is an emotional pull. It simply comes a little too late to really save the album. Diehard Imogen Heap fans might have to gulp hard with disappointment when they hear Ellipse, as there is little evidence of the sonic and melodic wonderment of her last two albums. A patchy release, they’ll have to dig harder between the many gaps to find the fleeting moments of Heap’s old brilliance.

P. Viktor
UK release date: 24/08/09; www.myspace.com/imogenheap

‘Canvas’


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17 Comments so far
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>>rather awful ‘Earth’s vocal arrangement grating rather than ingratiating itself, as Heap berates a lover about not very much at all<<

Er, no, it is the Earth berating mankind about the destruction of the environment. Maybe you should have listened to Heap's vBlogs. But even sans vBlogs it is evident enough from the lyrics.

As for the claim that the sound is 'almost identical' to her last album, I can only wonder what you were on when you listened to it. The sound and arrangements are strikingly different, with 'Wait It Out' as the only (deliberate) exception, which Heap describes as 'tipping her hat' to 'Hide and Seek'.

Not that I expect everyone to like the album equally (or instantly). I am still uncertain whether I like 2-1 myself. But when a review is inaccurate or just plain silly, expect to be called on it.

Comment by DavidB

You’re entitled to your opinion David, but general listeners should be able to appreciate albums without knowledge of vBlogs or knowing the entire history of each song. Earth can be interpreted (that’s what reviewers do – they interpret) as a song about relationships as much about environmental issues – Heap is obviously using the old micro/macrocosm device here. In any case, I don’t need to know Heap’s lyrical intentions to know that some of it is pure doggerel. Also realise that reviewers don’t get lyric sheets so sometimes those nuances get lost.

As for the charge about her sound being ‘almost identical’ to previous albums, well, I stand by it. There is very little that is new here sonically or in terms of songwriting – that’s my opinion. I don’t expect you to agree with my review. And believe me – I am a Heap fan, but this, for ‘me’, is a disappointing album.

Comment by P.Viktor

And you are entitled to your opinion too. I was not questioning your judgement of the quality of the album, but certain specific comments which seemed to me likely to mislead your readers. I have just listened again to ‘Speak For Yourself’, and confirmed my impression that the sound is very different from ‘Ellipse’. Most of the tracks on SFY have very dominant programmed bass and percussion tracks, which are almost entirely absent from Ellipse. That isn’t an opinion, it’s a matter of fact. And if the most prominent element in the sound of one album is absent from the other, they can hardly be ‘almost identical’, can they? As for other aspects of the ‘sound’, they are more intangible, but I would say the sound of Ellipse is cleaner, more subtle, and less ‘electro’ than SFY.

I agree that there is little new ‘in terms of songwriting’ in Ellipse, but that is a different matter. I’m not sure that one can or should expect a songwriter’s style to change drastically from one album to another.

Finally, on ‘Earth’, you may be right that it ‘can be interpreted as a song about relationships’, but that is pretty clearly not its primary meaning (the title is a bit of a clue!) and your original comment in your review showed that you hadn’t actually listened to it with any care – which I think both artists and readers are entitled to expect from a reviewer.

Comment by DavidB

… anyway, people can make up their own minds. The entire album can be heard here, free:

http://www.imogenheap.com/ellipse/

and you can click on the ‘Buy’ buttons to get purchase options.

Comment by DavidB

I guess it makes sense that it could be about earth telling how much we are messing up the planet. I thought it was a mother to her child when I listened to it. No matter, I still love it!

Comment by AprilB

You guys are just plain stupid. At least she is original. You know, It’s really wierd how you guys like common boring music but arent able to understand Heap’s music? Her songs are unique and only people who know how to listen to her songs know that. So, go back home or whatever and listen her songs again! It doesnt matter if her new songs are identical with her old songs because at the very least her songs arent same with other artist.

Comment by Akaren

sorry I mean not you guys! I mean the person who wrote this review. sorry hehe

Comment by Akaren

I haven’t watched any of the video blogs and I haven’t read the lyrics but I would have thought it is fairly obvious that ‘Earth’ is about environmental issues. She goes on about factories being built on her! Hardly relates to relationships…And as for ‘Little Bird’, I interpreted it as the sort of Desperate Housewives-ish, sinister side of suburbia. Hence the list of surburban things. “The garden’s wearing haute couture/it’s hiding something/it’s trying too hard/it’s hiding something…unsaid…festers in the throws of the sofa.” “we smell rats in the kitchen” etc. Again, this is just from listening to the album, doesn’t rely on an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Imogen Heap.

As for Bad Body Double, I think this is a Marmite song – I can see how you think the lyrics are trite, but the cleverness is that she’s singing about something quite depressing (in its content and its prevalence) in a rather cheeky, wry way. When she drawls “you can see I’ve got someone quite nice here with me,” it’s funny!

I don’t love all of the songs on the album myself – Aha! and 2-1 don’t particularly appeal to me – but I think most people will find something here to enjoy.

Comment by Electronica

I hate to say that I agree with a lot of what this critic is saying. First off, I am a MASSIVE fan of Imogen, I have met her in person, watched all of her blogs and deeply appreciate the way she puts herself out there as an artist. Speak For Yourself is one of my top albums of the last 10 years, so keep in mind it is very difficult to criticize this album.

That being said, this album does lack the magic of Speak For Yourself. There are no Hide & Seek moments on this album and it lacks the melodic “no song is a skipper” construct of the first album. It is a beautiful album with beautiful sounds, vocals and lyrics, yet it just isn’t as gripping as the last one. I am on my 20th listen and I just don’t FEEL it yet. There are those few moments, the sudden sugar rush of a chorus in Swoon, the delicate sweetness of Between the Sheets, Tidal and the subtle, elegant beauty of Canvas.

I will say that I disagree with the Trousers review in that the tune Earth is for me an album highlight and the lyrics are actually quite clever. The layering of the vocals and percussion here are exquisite. I also happen to like Bad Body Double, now that I have moved on from its obvious “quirkiness” and appreciate more that it is a humerous commentary on low self esteem. There are terrific moments on Ellipse and I will still go see Immi if she tours the US, and I will most definitely look forward to future releases. This album may not entirely recall the genius that was Speak For Yourself, but it still provides enough evidence that Immi is a true talent and is here to stay.

Ellipse for me is 3 stars out of 5. Speak For Yourself (5) and Details (4.5).

Comment by Alienbaby

I also agree with the trousers reviewer. I’ve listened to Ellipse several times, and I don’t hear musical tension or drama or energy anywhere near the level of Speak For Yourself, which has some amazing musical moments, spine-tinglers, on almost every song. Just not getting that with Ellipse. I think partly it’s that most songs on Ellipse are in major keys (typically less dramatic), and the chord progressions and melodies sound somewhat stale. Still love the sound and the style, just don’t hear songs that will stick with me long-term.

Comment by Andy

I accept that others will have different opinions of an album (some may simply not like it while others may) but I find it difficult to believe the reviewer gave this album and its lyrics more than a cursory listen/glance. I comment on this irresponsibility, not our general difference of opinion.

Did the reviewer not have access to the lyrics of ‘Earth’? Certainly there is a personal/political thing going on in this song and throughout the whole album, but it’s obvious even to a somewhat inattentive listener that Heap is exploring environmental issues). I point out this track because its lyrics contain some significant phrases that touch on one of the broader themes of the album: the interconnectedness of past and present and the role of the human being (and her relationships/evolutions) in the universe. In ‘Earth’: “I caught first glimmers / in hides and skins / Look who’s all grown up / Black swanning about the solar winds.”

I’ll refrain from quoting more songs at length but will point out similar references in ‘2-1’ (comments on the shape of the Earth and its “change,” being in awe of the cosmos); ‘Canvas’ (the fragility of the Earth–or is it the self?); and ‘Tidal’ (recollections of a time “before electric light, lovers “paddling” through a “soup of darkness,” the pull of the moon).

To be sure there are moments when “a cigar is just a cigar” (and I have only watched a few of the video blogs, so those who tuned in more frequently may have gleaned some insight that I probably lack), and there is a levity in Ellipse that I feel was not so evident on her previous albums (which I very much enjoyed, particularly Speak for Yourself). I think Heap intends to be lighthearted with songs like ‘Swoon’, ‘Bad Body Double’ (with its sonic background “banter”), and ‘Aha!’

One must assume the reviewer doesn’t really know what he wants. Does he want another Speak for Yourself–or not? In the same review he decries her use of the “same gimmicks,” complaining that “her production has stayed almost identical to her last solo effort, and in four years she hasn’t really developed a new sound”–but also laments the loss of Heap’s “old brilliance,” the “poignant balladry” of two of her previous songs, and the “melodic magic” missing here that was evident in past endeavors.

I find this review as perplexing as the reviewer seems to find Heap’s new album. 1.5/5

Comment by Matthew

Unfortunately, no, reviewers do not typically get access to the lyrics of albums. And, indeed, in the case of major label releases, online reviewers are hamstrung by the fear of leaks and so often barely get more than a few days to listen and write. I’m sorry you don’t like P’s review with the advantage of a fortnight’s listening, but he certainly did more than give it a cursory listen. He is, or was, a fan after all.

Comment by Wears The Trousers magazine

All right, the lyrics weren’t available and had only a fortnight (a whole lot of time, but perhaps that’s just me). Fair enough; disregard that part of my comment.

But, as I said, I am curious as to what he was expecting (since the review is all over the place in that regard and doesn’t leave the reader with a clear idea as to what the problem is except “I didn’t really like it”).

Anyway, I thought editors might catch something like this. Poor writing for a publication of this magnitude, I’d say. Maybe scathing, exciting, and snarky reviews are exciting for readers, though, regardless of how much (or little, rather) sense they make.

Comment by Matthew

Sorry, I meant that you were coming from a perspective of a fortnight’s listening. P had three days. But, yes, that is somewhat beside the point.

I appreciate that I might have edited this review more harshly, because I think a lot of people are getting confused between what P is saying about the production and what he’s saying about the songwriting. It’s perfectly possible to retain melodic magic and poignant balladry using a more developed production style. Her old brilliance wasn’t entirely down to production, but, in the reviewer’s argument, stronger songwriting. Perhaps this could have been clearer.

I’m gratified that you recognise the importance of Wears The Trousers, really. That’s nice to know. But don’t think for a moment that we deliberately seek to publish scathing reviews just to get hits. That’s really not what we’re about.

Comment by Wears The Trousers magazine

[…] 18/8] 04 Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Break Up [Alan Pedder 29/8] 05 Imogen Heap – Ellipse [P Viktor 20/8] 06 Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions – Through The Devil Softly [Charlotte […]

Pingback by Q3: 50 most read reviews « wears the trousers magazine

I, like others who have posted here, absolutely love Speak For Yourself, Details, and Imegaphone, and, it’s not that I dislike Ellipse, but, there’s a missing ingredient; though, I’m not quite sure what it is.

I’ve watched every single v-blog, got the album signed by Immi in NYC and bought concert tickets to see her live in two weeks: These affections notwithstanding, my love is uneasy because Ellipse is such a personal album, and it’s deeply rooted to her psyche, such that, I’m hesitant about listening to it often. Consider this akin to reading someone’s diary, an exceptionally well-written, majestic diary; you love it the first time, but, you don’t necessarily read it repeatedly.

My point is, I think this album is missing a bit of replay value, but, it seems to me that it’s missing constituent is more than made-up for through personality and emotion.

Comment by Alex

I am not even going to get in how wrong you are about this. Someone made a huge mistake when they made you a music critic. HORRIBLE.

Comment by jessica




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