In 2005, Imogen Heap released the widely acclaimed Speak For Yourself, an album that dared to combine the catchiest of melodies with intricately crafted, self-produced electronica, challenging the very boundaries of pop music production.
For Imogen’s next undertaking, she decided to return to the very beginning–her childhood home, in fact. Building a studio in her family’s cottage outside of London, Heap began collecting sounds from the home–odd clicks in the floorboards, squeaky chair grunts, or anything else that might sound nice as a looped beat. Stitching them together between piano melodies and flourishes electronica, she began work on what would eventually grow into Ellipse, released on August 25.
Arguably, Heap’s third studio album is also the first of its kind to embrace the ever-expanding nebula of social media–evidence of which can be both seen and heard in the making of Ellipse: From the background chatter hidden within album closer, “Half Life” (a recording from London’s Twestival event held for the Twitter-minded), to streaming piano sessions broadcast live from Hawaii, to the weekly vLogs posted on YouTube tracking her album’s progress. The influence of social media even expanded into the the album’s artwork, complete with the winning photos from a Flickr-run fan contest, which were then projected onto Heap’s body as she was photographed posing around her home.
Considering all of this–the album’s organic growth and deep-rooted nostalgia factor, as well as its persistent emphasis on fan interaction–makes it all the more difficult to come to terms with what I’ve ultimately come to realize: Ellipse isn’t really all that good.
Believe me, I’ve tried. But the more I began listening–really, truly listening to this album, the more I began to accept that Ellipse just wasn’t capturing my attention. The hooks are less radio-friendly, the music is more intricate and interwoven, and the lyrics far more sophisticated this time around–which all sound like the ingredients to a mature follow-up, right? Well, it isn’t working here.
Ellipse lacks the coy pop sensibility of “Goodnight and Go,” the intricate melodies of “Loose Ends” and “Headlock,” and the carnal growl of her early angst-ridden releases, including “Sweet Religion” and “Come Here Boy.” As a result, Ellipse is an exercise in art-pop that simply promises too much.
At least a handful of tracks prove nearly impossible to stomach: I’ve tried to find the patience to work through the goofy effervescence of “Earth,” failing each time the gleeful vocal layering comes pulsating into the airwaves. The same applies to “A-Ha!”, which has no idea what it wants to be; an ominous, sweeping taunt that comes off as a cross between a drinking song and a not-quite-there reject from the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack.
Even the bark of “Bad Body Double,” Imogen’s personal Single White Female backhand that promises all sorts of excellence in print (“We look the same except she’s got some greys and a little extra weight on the sides and dimply thighs…I hear that stuff’s a bitch to get rid of”) just barely comes off as a whimper in song form.
The sound effects–the vocal layering which felt inspired and fresh on Speak For Yourself, now overload Ellipse with a certain degree of lameness; at times even providing the creeping suspicion that this album would be far better suited as the backing sound for a children’s TV show. In fact, the album’s mastering in general simply sounds mediocre in comparison. No matter what adjustments I’ve made to the volume, treble, or bass, Ellipse still sounds like being played just out of reach of the speakers.
This isn’t to say that the album is all bad. After all, this is still an Imogen Heap production, which guarantees a certain amount of inherent magic. For me, the most stripped-down album tracks happen to be favorites, including “Wait It Out,” “Tidal,” and even the all-too-short instrumental, “The Fire.”
“Canvas” is perhaps Heap’s most important show of growth: Maneuvering through the song with her most clever lyricism and a host of brooding, soaring piano and string melodies, the singer shines a light on the subjects of heartache and longing in a believable, brooding manner. The album’s more romantic melodies display a similar break in style, including as “2-1,” “Between Sheets,” and “Half Life,” which are nothing short of bliss; the latter of which proving to be on par, if not better, than her infamous ballad “Hide and Seek.”
Be it the fault of spending too much time micro-managing and nitpicking the same songs in her home studio over a three year period, or allowing too much input into the process from fans this time around, or simply as a result of “the hype,” Ellipse is not quite everything I’d hoped it to be. It’s listenable, and at times quite enjoyable at its beginning and end, but as far as developing, growing, and evolving as an artist, Ellipse more often than not comes off sounding like a side-step rather than a stride ahead.