Imogen Heap makes music that is, in a sense, contradictory. On one level, her offerings are fluttering and polished—slick, futuristic stuff that’s put together with various software plug-ins and effects programs, seemingly for the explicit purpose of accompanying a highly urbane car commercial. At the same time, the eclectic Londoner’s songs are often unique bursts of vision—set pieces for a quaint, dreamy world that only she can imagine. In other words, Heap is the Tim Burton of music: at times painfully mainstream and derivative, and yet eternally loyal to a vision of her own making.
Like Speak for Yourself before it, Heap’s third studio album, Ellipse, often breaks, screeches to a halt, recalibrates, and then finds its beat again, all while its songstress frolics above the vocoderized chaos. But the record is much better off when all the effect-laden squeaks are abandoned for pure rhythmic expression. The haunting, minimalist immediacy of “Little Bird” finds Heap at her best, playfully contrasting the harsh beauty of her voice off a flood of synth xylophones and mellow, digital ambience. Likewise, the syncopated euphoria of “Earth” will lead Björk fans to wonder whether the schizophrenic Volta should have sounded this blissful, if not for Timbaland’s blatant rubber-stamp production.
Björk comparisons are par for the course for Heap, what with her bird-nest coifs and leaping-logic fashion sense. Still, underneath all the blatant expressionism, Heap is just a lovesick Brit who sings of swooning crushes, petal-picking, and brokenhearted romances. It is that exact lovestruck normalcy that makes Ellipse so endearing: Despite having a sound that seems as though it’s been pieced together in a lab with microchips, Heap still wears a fuming, beating heart firmly on her sleeve. As such, listeners can forgive bad habits, even when Ellipse banally trips into regions already mined by Speak for Yourself.