Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was an exciting breakthrough album because it proved she could draw in some of the current alternative energy in the air and still utilize her flawless voice. Then the album’s follow-up, Surfacing, erred on the side of safety and, while at times interesting, was much more polished. Not incidentally, McLachlan found even more success, most notably with the saccharine “Angel”. The track was beautiful and more interesting than your standard no. 1 hit, but it was still one of the least interesting tracks she’d released. Six years later she released Afterglow, an album that only differed from Surfacing in that it was even safer and more polished.
In 1998, while McLachlan was still riding the wave of success of Surfacing and her festival Lilith Fair, London’s Imogen Heap released her debut, iMegaphone. It sounded very much like the aggressive female rock that was getting airplay at the time, even if it sounds unimaginable that you’d hear that on the radio now. Her mix of piano work, thick vocals, and alternative rock was interesting. It sounded find alongside Poe, PJ Harvey, and Liz Phair—but would she last? It took seven years (and a side project called Frou Frou) to get the sophomore release Speak for Yourself, but it proved she was going to stick around once “Hide and Seek” gained commercial success. It was a pleasant song that, in my opinion, ranks among her weakest works. But, like “Angel”, it was an unstoppable single that put her on the map.
I’m reminded of Afterglow because, like Ellipse, it is a highly anticipated follow-up that shows an artist who is subconsciously afraid to depart too much from her most successful formula. Listen to “First Train Home”, the album’s lead track, and you can tell Heap isn’t coasting on her laurels, but she’s not stretching herself either. She invokes her trademark electronic beeps and synthesized vocals, and creates a song that sounds gorgeous in headphones if you can get past the ho-hum lyrics. It’s a pretty song that could’ve been on Speak for Yourself—but that’s it. And much of Ellipse is no more than pretty.
At least when Heap succeeds, however, she proves why she’s still worth listening to a decade into her career. “Aha!” is both creepy and catchy. It might as well be credited to Danny Elfman with its music box cranking and Heap’s childlike “la la la la la la la” refrain. “Go one while no one’s looking / Aha, got you now / Caught you red-handed in the biscuit tin” works as a beautiful parallel to the innocent arrangement, and it’s this kind of detail that makes the album worth listening to.
The way “2-1” opens as a quiet ballad and grows into a brooding electronic storm is refreshing. It sounds as if she listened to “Headlock”, one of Speak for Yourself’s strongest tracks, and took it to a darker place that makes it more interesting sandwiched between the sweet “Between Sheets” and quirky “Bad Body Double”. What’s also impressive about “2-1” is that Heap lets the lyrics do much of the work. As a lyricist, she often goes for the obvious rhyme and cliché, to varying degrees of success. On this song, she refrains from going too crazy with her Mac Book gadgets and keeps the tension just a few beats away from being dramatic. Meanwhile, she repeats the lines of desperation (“I care about you/things are not always how they seem”) until the music stops and she sounds exhausted of expressing these sentiments.
“Swoon” is a good example of how Heap can make you dance with a midtempo tune, not unlike Frou Frou’s “Let Go” and “Must Be Dreaming”. Sure, “Half Life” is the very expected quiet piano tune that concludes the album. “Wait It Out” hits you over the head with its theme that, surprise, love hurts. No matter how you slice it, the album succeeds as much as it frustrates.
Heap’s a great talent who probably would’ve made a better album had she not hit it big with “Hide and Seek”. Of course, there’s a chance she wouldn’t have had the funds to make this album if it weren’t for that fame. And seeing as much of this album sounds like it was plucked from her past discography, Heap might be the kind of artist who needs someone to push her to the next level. iMegaphone featured multiple producers, and Frou Frou’s Details was co-produced with collaborator Guy Sigsworth. These most recent albums are entirely self-produced affairs and suggest that a little outside help could be what transforms her into a more dynamic artist. Until then, listening to an occasionally great one will do.