Imogen Heap - Ellipse
Record Label: Megaphonic
Release Date: August 24, 2009
Imogen Heap’s explosion into mainstream consciousness placed her in an awkward position. Following the extreme success of her album Speak for Yourself due to choice placements in pop culture staples such as The O.C. and Garden State, Heap was left with an interesting decision: embrace her newfound role as the premier songwriter of aching ballads to match the drama of relationships in television shows and movies, or continue to explore the experimental vein always present in her music, where the focus is less on catchy song structure and more on creating interesting soundscapes in which to get auditorily lost. Not surprisingly, her newest album Ellipse is split between these two paths, and unfortunately only the former succeeds, while the latter suffers from directionless indulgence.
Opener and single “First Train Home” treads familiar territory for those that know Heap’s past work, but is by no means a letdown. Her instantly recognizable breathy delivery is accompanied by a simple driving bass line and various synthesized effects, all to wonderful effect. Heap manages to avoid sounding too repetitive while at the same time clearly compiling the most successful aspects of her previous material into one neat package. This is followed by “Wait It Out,” a track that initially causes worry as it seems to heavily copy the style of Imogen Heap’s most well-known single, “Hide and Seek.” An interesting transformation takes place, however, over the course of the song. Mildly unninspired lyrics accompanied by a capella harmonies give way to a swelling piano line and agitated dance beat, which continue to grow through the second chorus before exploding into an awe-inducing climactic bridge, without a doubt one of the greatest moments in Heap’s entire musical career.
The rest of Ellipse is hit or miss, with some tracks evocatively combining Heap’s unique instrumentation and vocal technique and others descending into indulgent atmospherics or outright boredom. Songs like “Earth” and “Little Bird” showcase the musician’s immense talents and knack for combining electronic sounds but do little to captivate or encourage repeat listens. “Swoon” begins as a darker dance piece before shifting into a shamelessly bright bridge, the lyrics of which not-so-subtly divulge some interesting details about Imogen’s sex life. Album highlight “Tidal” comes next and stands as a perfect example of what Heap can accomplish when her abilities and interests are channeled toward an inspired and purposeful goal. The sound environment begs to be heard through isolated headphones in order to make out all of the intricate nuances of the layers in the song, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the chorus contains one of the most appealing and memorable melodies on the entire album (which says a lot in the context of an Imogen Heap album where complex, satisfying melodies are abundant).
From there, sadly, Ellipse hits with far less effectiveness. While there are touching moments to be found, nothing sticks in the mind once the songs have passed. The only true awful moment comes in the form of “Bad Body Double,” whose lyrics and instrumentals are among the worst Heap has ever produced. The final two tracks, “Canvas” and “Half-Life,” are both gorgeous, the former a haunting examination of a failing relationship and the latter a moving plea to a lover for reciprocation.
When Ellipse shines, it is a thing of wonder. The standout tracks alone are worth the purchase, while the rest of the album is for the most part pleasing to hear if a little disappointingly unmemorable. One can hope that some day Imogen Heap will manage to perfect her formula over the course of an entire album, but in the meantime, the several outstanding tracks on Ellipse will certainly suffice.