At the most basic level, making an album is about putting the right songs, in the right order, with suitable gaps in between.
Which sounds simple enough, right ?
Maybe so. But the running order has an enormous impact on the way we perceive songs, and their meaning.
For example, Imogen Heap’s new album “Sparks” was released today. I’ve been listening obsessively to it for the last week (because I pre-ordered the amazing “deluxe box-set” version) and it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
I was worried that it simply wouldn’t hang together as an album, because of the unique way it was produced – but in fact the opposite was true.
Quietly, without us (or herself ?) noticing, Imogen has created a concept album about the end of her relationship – with an unexpectedly happy twist at the end.
And the tool she used to achieve this was nothing more than the order she chose to put the songs in.
Bear with me though, this will take a little time to explain…
If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I’ve been following Imogen’s progress recording and mixing the album for the last three years in all it’s crowd-sourced interactive glory, and I’m a huge fan of her work. I even ended up in one of the videos, somehow !
Listening to the songs for the new album develop though, I was concerned that what she had written and recorded wouldn’t make a satisfying collection when released as an album.
Most people still use the long-standing tried-and-tested method of writing an album: write a load of songs, pick the ones you think are best and work well together, maybe play them out live, and then record them.
Whereas for “Sparks”, Imogen’s plan was to write, record and release a song every three months, taking two weeks to do each song. Which is exactly what she did – at least to begin with, anyway.
A glitch in the algorithm
The first three “Heapsongs” rolled out on schedule, were well-recieved, and she made at least 3 ambitious trips – to India, China and Bhutan, each each with some kind of musical motivation behind it.
Somewhere around this time, it seemed there was a shift – maybe a loss of energy, or confidence, or enthusiasm, or something – and everything seemed to be going off the rails, somehow.
A feeling I can’t quite explain
The “Me The Machine” premiere and event was stressful and rocky; the Bhutan trip was apparently going to result in an album soundtrack; her all-night composition residency at Artangel’s “Room For London” resulted only in fragments of music and lyrics but nothing more; there was a lot of work on a piece of music that was going to be an interactive smartphone jogging app, not an actual song; there was “The Listening Chair” project which seemed to be a great idea and resulted in a classical piece for choir, premiered at the 2013 Proms but no song for the album…
Everything seemed to have lost focus – which is one of the major challenges of trying to produce yourself, of course – let alone recording, mixing and promoting your own music at the same time.
From the outside, it looked a bit of a mess, to be honest. Even Imogen’s legendary social media activity slowed to a virtual trickle – by her usual prolific standards, at least.
Nonetheless, time passed, more of the songs were released and in the summer of 2013 Imogen re-emerged in earnest, working on final mixes, excited about producing the lavish box set, still developing (and delighted by) The Gloves, and gearing up for mastering.
Things still didn’t run entirely smoothly, though – there was a melancholy message on Twitter that Imogen had split up from Thomas, her partner of several years, and record company complications prevented the album’s immediate release as Imogen wanted.
But ten long months later, it’s finally here.
Ready for this ?
And when my copy arrived, I suddenly wasn’t sure how to feel.
I was excited by the lavish production standards of the amazing box set, and looking forward to hearing the two or three songs I didn’t know – but I was more or less convinced it had no chance of working together as an album.
The method of working Imogen had chosen had certainly achieved her goal of blending life and work, allowing her to persue other projects, but it seemed like they had spiralled out of control and she’d sacrificed her ability to take a step back and focus on the bigger picture. I loved many of the early songs that emerged from the process, but based on what I’d heard, how could the final result be anything other than disjointed, random and dissatisfying ?
What’s at the heart of it all ?
I should have known better. Somehow, from all these disparate elements, “Sparks” emerges as a cohesive, satisfying whole, even seeming to tell the personal story behind it – of the end of her previous relationship.
But that last sentence doesn’t make any sense. Because she didn’t split up with Thomas until after “Sparks” was written. How could she have been writing about something which hadn’t happened yet ?
Nonetheless, it’s true – I think – and the secret is the album’s sequencing – the running order.
(See ? And you thought I’d completely lost the plot, right ?!)
How was this unexpected cat kept in the bag all that time ?
By choosing the running order she has, Imogen has effectively “re-purposed” many of the songs. Especially when you compare the final running order with the order they were written – something you almost can’t avoid doing because of the way the songs are packaged in the box set.
Here’s my triple-gatefold description of how I think it works…
This all started with a song
In a nutshell, the “story” I hear in “Sparks” is of a relationship put under strain, forced to breaking point – and then an unexpected happy ending. What’s so clever though, is that it’s told for the most part using songs which weren’t written with the intent of telling that story.
So for example, the first three songs set the stage of a happy relationship. “You Know Where To Find Me”, was the final product of the compositional sparks kindled during the frustrating time Imogen spent in Artangel’s “Room For London”. I completely underestimated it when it was first released – the decision to record the basic track on fifteen different pianos spread around Edinburgh made it seem disjointed and disatisfying, at the time – now it’s one of my favourite songs on the album. Inspired by the river Thames, the people around it and their stories, it also seems to nicely set the stage: “Be still with me” Imogen sings, comfortable in her relationship and the world.
It’s followed by “Entanglement”, a tender, sensual “between the sheets” song originally written for a sex scene in a Twilight movie – clearly her relationship was going well at the time ! And then “The Listening Chair”, last seen at the Proms premiere, re-worked from a choral classical piece into a quirky five-minute pop song with unexpectedly personal lyrics. In a pleasing twist, it tells the story of her entire life so far – and she plans to add a minute to it every seven years until she dies.
It’s structurally and musically complicated, cutting between different tempos, hooks and rhythms, quirky and sometimes dissonant. Like lots of clasical music, this means you need to take time to learn it before you can really appreciate it – but when you do, it pays dividends.
The instrumental “Cycle Song”, from the soundtrack to “The Happiest Place” film and inspired by Imogen’s treck through the Himalayas, slots in well at this point to round off the “happy” opening section of the album. But then “Telemiscommunications”, her collaboration with Deadmau5, skews the mood slightly with it’s depiction of the way modern technology can get in the way of us talking, rather than helping it.
“Lifeline” was the first song written for the album, and was inspired by sounds and lyrics crowd-sourced from Imogen’s audience. It was written about the tsunami in Japan in 2011, and at first glance is not about a relationship at all. Except it’s sandwiched between “Telemiscommunications” and “Neglected Space”, which was written about abandoned spaces and buildings, but features lyrics like “Unloved… no human touch, I’m walking past, a waste of space”, and the key phrase “If you look after me, I’ll look after you”. In this context “Lifeline” somehow feels more personal and vulnerable than it did when it was first written.
These three songs together change the tone, and subtly let us know that all is not well. The unsettled mood is pushed aside temporarily by the excited bravado of “Minds Without Fear”, which Imogen wrote in an absurdly short 3-day timescale during her visit to India, but then “Me The Machine” arrives. This was the song where everything seemed to really go pear-shaped in real life, and it has a similar impact within the album, describing “The pincode to happiness, access denied… I can’t do everything and I’ll get over it”.
The pressure of developing the technology behind “The Gloves” and writing and promoting a song at the same time meant that Imogen had clearly bitten off more than she could chew, and she knew it – and this was putting her relationship under strain, as well as her creativity.
“Me The Machine” is followed by “Run-time” – the musical result of Imogen’s work developing the smartphone jogging app, and the song lays everything out clearly for the first and only time on the album, really. The lyrics were written with hindsight over a year after “Me the Machine”, as Imogen was coming to realise that her relationship with Thomas wasn’t working, and it starkly juxtaposes a bouncy, up-beat synth backing against some very direct lyrics. “You know we’ve had it good, we’ve had it bad… I’m done pretending/Let’s quit while we’re still friends… You nearly watched me ruin everything/You were supposed to be looking out for me!”.
“Run-Time” knocked me for six when I first heard it in context of the album. Hearing it as part of the sequence of songs she’s built up, suddenly you can forget about the technicalities of it’s origins as an interactive app and connect with the lyrics in their own right. Imogen had come to realise “it was a cover-up all along”, and knew her relationship was over. It’s musically and lyrically dense – she had asked for suggestions on Twitter about how to squeeze all the different musical material that the jogging app produced into a single song, and applied the same degree of compression to the lyrics, packing almost the entire “story” of the album into a single song. It’s like a tiny depth-charge, an explosion of ideas and music in a deceptively small package.
After another brief interlude of Himalayan-inspired calm in “Climb To Sateng”, last-minute addition “The Beast” is clearly about two people turning against each other as a relationship goes sour. Based on a re-discovered collaboration with rapper B.O.B, Imogen has said she was delighted to be able to add it to the album at the last moment because it “needed more angst”. Oddly enough, even though it clearly fits the “narrative”, it doesn’t quite ring true to me – almost as if Imogen has deliberately fictionalised this bit of the story, elaborating on the reality to make it work better.
But that doesn’t matter in the least, because the two most genius moments of song sequencing and re-purposing on the album have been saved until last.
The fifth heapsong released, “Xizi She Knows” was the result of Imogen’s 6-week residency in the city of Hangxhou in China – an experience she says profoundly changed her. Using sounds recorded entirely within the 24 hours of her birthday right at the end of her stay, and written about the city and it’s people, pleading for moderation in pace of development of the city, “Xizu” is metaphorically the character of the West Lake in the city – but also, with hindsight, surely it has to describe Imogen too ? “You’re beautiful, graceful, like no other/Pretty damned good as you are” ?
That’s certainly what it “means” at this point of the album, I think – “Xizu” feels like a musical metaphor for Imogen’s relief at coming out the other side of her break-up, and re-discovering her confidence.
“Propeller Seeds” is the final song on the album and was “my” heapsong (it’s the one where I ended up in the video) and has felt bitter-sweet ever since Imogen revealed that she had split up with Thomas, since it was written explicitly to capture in sound and music the moment when they met. And, it was one of the loveliest songs on the album. She couldn’t leave it out, but wouldn’t it always feel sad if she left it in?
Because “Propeller Seeds” also describes the first moment Imogen realised she wanted to put down roots and have children – and in the happiest possible twist to the story, as the album is released she is now in a new relationship and five months pregnant with her first baby.
So the song’s used-to-be-sad-with-hindsight last line question now means something different-and-entirely-not-sad than it did when she first wrote it. A song about the beginning of a relationship, somehow simultaneously resolving the end of that relationship and looking forward to a new one too.
Entanglement in action – Schrödinger’s love-song…
(Too much ? I’ll get my hat.)
And the story continues
So there you have it. The straightforward power of the album’s running order somehow transforms what seemed to be a pretty motley assortment of tunes, soundtrack snippets and ambitious part-realised tech projects into a cohesive, satisfying emotional musical journey – all the way there and back again.
Or maybe I’m reading WAY too much into all this 🙂
Imogen has said she worked long and hard getting the songs in the right order for the album, so that it flowed well musically – and no doubt the mix and mastering tweaks she worked on helped everything fall into place too. Maybe it’s just coincidence that everything seems to follow the personal story behind the making of the album, too – but she has also said at several points how challenging the album was to make, and how much she learned about herself in the process, so my guess is – probably not.
(Speaking of “making-of”s – there’s a video for every song on this album explaining everything that went into it, right down to box-set. Dig in – as with everything Imogen does, there are layers on layers on layers of stories, everywhere)
We’ll probably never know if Imogen consciously thought any of these things when she was working on the track-list for “Sparks” – but if nothing else, it reinforces my appreciation of the album format. Call me a middle-aged prog rock fan if you like, but for me, the placing of songs in a meaningful sequence is a crucial element to my enjoyment of music, and I love hearing that skill exercised effectively. It’s ironic that an album made in the innovative, disjointed way that this one was reinforces that point so strongly.
Taking time and care over the order of the songs you put onto an album is crucial – it can change everything – even what they seem to mean.