[24 August 2009]
After many false starts and failed release dates, Imogen Heap’s third solo album, Ellipse, is finally here. This is Heap’s first album since 2005, and it is also her first full-length for White Rabbit, an imprint of BMG that gives her big-label promotion with small-label control. Ellipse has also arrived via a rather, well, elliptical path in which Heap adopted and abandoned other large-scale projects, such as scoring a Disney documentary about flamingoes.
Fear not; Ellipse is not a simple repackaging of flamingo songs. The opening track, “First Train Home”, is thoroughly recognizable as an Imogen Heap song. There are some evocations of her Frou Frou days, but the laptop-folk qualities, ethereal backing vocals, and catchy chorus place the song squarely in Heap’s court as she repeats, “first train home / I’ve got to get on it.”
“Wait It Out” begins with a somewhat hackneyed “where do we go from here? how do we carry on?” quickly redeemed by the clever wordplay of “pain on pain on play repeating / With a backup makeshift life in waiting.” “Wait It Out” is one of those gently epic ballads for which Heap is known, having the sense of soaring without relying on post-rock grandeur. This song is a perfect melding of form and content, Heap asking if “we’re just going to wait it out” during the song’s prolonged intermission and ending, imparting that deep sense of what she calls “the endless unknown”.
“Earth” launches another Heap trademark: rich vocal layering. “I’ve tried patience but you always want a war,” she declares over a chorus in which her voice functions as effectively as the computer-generated beats that quietly work behind them. “You’re only what you give back,” she repeats, asserting this song’s clear ideology.
“Orange juice concentrate / Crossword puzzles start to grate” go some of the opening lines of “Little Bird” as Heap contemplates a morning and a (surprise!) bird’s eye view of it. Admittedly, when she sings “something is trying too hard,” it’s hard not to point to the song’s conceit. Even as the song becomes more glittery toward the ending, it’s hard to see it as much more than twee filler. “Swoon” is pleasant enough, but it doesn’t really become exciting until a little after two minutes in, when Heap amps up the wordplay and the layers of vocals. Additionally, the beats begin to sound a bit more modern, turning “Swoon” into something perfectly danceable. “Tidal” is another good dance number, beginning with Heap’s musings on evolutionary biology and moving through ebbing and flowing vocal currents. “Between Sheets” is a gorgeous love song — the album lingers here like the two lovers curled indefinitely in bed that it depicts. There’s a minimalist bass riff running throughout that augments the piano and Heap’s sweet voice well. “Bad Body Double” is a fun, poppy song but the concept that she’s her own bad body double wears thin quickly, as does rhyming “she’s trouble” with “bad body double.”
“The Fire” is a sparse piano ballad akin to “Candlelight” from Heap’s debut album. It is an instrumental piece, just the piano and the sound of paper burning in the background. Though it clocks in at under two minutes, it adds a lovely shade of mystery to the album.
Ellipse‘s first single is “Canvas”, guitar-driven and featuring Heap’s typical vocal phrasing, her way of speak-singing so that the melody circles back into itself. The album closes with “Half Life”, a song that sounds nearly a cappella with its very quiet piano in the background. Heap sings this in a higher range than her usual style, and it’s nice to hear what her voice can do in this context. Now and then strings peek out, gently accenting the soaring vocals. A fitting close for an album of such quiet elegance.