Jean Michel Jarre has not released an album of original material since 2007’s Teo and Tea, an album whose reception was, to say the very least , mixed. Even Jarre himself seems to have mixed feelings about it, thinking of it almost like a mid-life crisis during an intensely turbulent period in his personal affairs.
Now, after nearly five years of work and preparation comes Electronica: vol 1 The Time Machine. Let’s dispense with any contrived sense of suspense immediately: this is a good album. A very good album indeed. The main reason why is that it’s surprising, and takes some creative risks, which is unusual, not to mention refreshing, for an artist at this stage of his career. It also says something about the overdue appraisal he seems to be getting that the list of collaborators on this album are pretty much top league players, with some big names in there, as well as some hip young guns.
For an album like this, perhaps the best way to talk about it is by looking at each track individually. So here goes:
- The Time Machine (Boys Noize)
In all honesty, I don’t know much about Boys Noize, but I do like this track. There are, as in a few other pieces here, subtle (or not so subtle callbacks to earlier Jarre works), so here there are hints of the early parts of Oxygen, Equinoxe and sounds that are faintly reminiscent of Rendezvous’s laser harp.
- Glory (M83)
Glory was the first track to surface when the album was announced. And at the time it felt joyful, but a little slight. Now, in its rightful place in the running order on the album it sits perfectly. The chanting chorus that hits you is one of the Jarre hallmarks: the killer hook
- Close Your Eyes (Air)
A personal favourite. During interviews Jarre has said that Air, like him, do electronic music in a very French, impressionistic way, coming from the influences of composers like Debussy and Satie. This track confirms that, with its ever so slightly sad piano and a progression of sounds (starting with simple oscillators, to a sound produced by an iPad to close) woven together from the history of electronic music. It’s stately, ethereal and very Air-like. This is the song of the synthesiser, and they articulate its siren call.
- Automatic (Parts 1 and 2) (Vince Clarke)
This track screams “80s!” at me in the best way. It’s really easy to imagine it rendered as an 8bit chip tune, part 1 being used by Ocean as game loading music for a Commodore 64, with part 2 being the actual game soundtrack. Cracking stuff and, as you might expect from two artists who deal in melody, again: killer hooks.
- If…! (Little Boots)
I really like this track. I was aware of Little Boots, but only in a fairly peripheral way. But this is really rather lovely, and reminds me of CHVRCHES too. Her voice is rather delicate on this, especially in the verses, and it works.
- Immortals (Fuck Buttons)
Another favourite. I imagine this on some documentary soundtrack playing behind images of flying over ancient Inca cities, slowly panning over the built of Cuzco, or even the lines of Nazca. It reminds me faintly of 1991’s under-appreciated Globe Trotter, from the Images album, almost feeling like a descendant of that song. But then, I got the steer on Fuck Buttons from earlier things JMJ had said about them. I really like some of their stuff, so I was excited when I heard that this was going to be one the album’s collaborations. And it hasn’t disappointed me.
- Suns Have Gone (Moby)
At the moment, this is probably the one I least like on the album. Which sounds fairly harsh because i do like it, but right now I like others more. There’s lots to like about this. Moby’s goal delivery is ever so slightly detached and understated, which together with the hint of Wendy Carlos/Terry Riley bubbling rhythm under the melody make me think for some reason of Berlin period Bowie, like Low. I may grow to like this more than I already do, but for now other treats appeal more.
- Conquistador (Gessafelstein)
Another quite cinematic piece of music. This one, in a more literal sense makes me think of the Spaniards, landing in North America, trekking across sun-scorched desert and wide plains, looking for gold and people to pass smallpox onto. I actually prefer the JMJ remix version that appeared on the EP released earlier, as it has a more rounded and richer sounding bass. There is quite an epic sweep to things. It’s certainly made me go and look for more of Gessafelstein’s own stuff, which has been illuminating.
- Travelator Pt 2 (Pete Townshend)
For the fans who’ve already heard these tracks, this one has been quite divisive. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but also definitely grower. It deliberately echoes some of the influences Jarre thinks the Who brought, with burbling sequencing sitting underneath Townshend’s rather anguished vocal and a rather excellently thumping dance beat. Batshit bonkers, to be honest, which is exactly why I love it so much. It is apparently the middle part of a trilogy, which may find its way out as an EP later this year.
- Zero Gravity (Tangerine Dream)
Because Edgar Froese died soon after this piece was complete, it turns out that this is the last piece of music by Tangerine Dream. In contrast to French Electronica, Jarre did say that he felt the German style was a bit less organic, and more mechanistic in nature. There are certainly signs of that here; it does feel quite spartan and stripped down in places, but it works very,very well. The minimalism gives it a nice sense of space (pun intended). Of the initial bunch of tracks released tot he public earlier this year, this was the one I liked most at the time. And I still think it’s fitting epitaph for Froese.
- Rely On Me (Laurie Anderson)
Another favourite of mine. This is the their track that JMJ nd Anderson have worked on together. The first was 1984’s Diva, from the album Zoolook (one of the key electronic albums of the 1980s, as far as I’m concerned); the second was on Metamorphoses’ Je Me Souviens. JMJ has said he loves working with her, and you can see why. This is, in essence, a love song between a phone and its user. Anderson’s voice is a warm, enveloping, seductive presence. In fact, her voice is so wonderful, I want Apple to ask her to be the voice of Siri.
- Stardust (Armin van Buuren)
It would be easy to dismiss this as a fairly simple banging Eurodance anthem. And yes, it is definitely that, with anthemic stabs, then the breakdown, to be followed by the hands-in-the-air climax. But, as ever, Jarre’s ear for a killer hook works its way in there. And of course it is indicative of one stream of the modern character of electronic music. It certainly got a good reception when AvB debuted it at festival during the summer. And t’s certainly good music to drive to.
- Watching You (3D – Robert del Naja)
Of the tracks that were released earlier in the year, this was the one I liked least at the time. And I’m not sure why, because enow I really like it. There is as certain fidgety darkness lent to it by 3D, but repeated listening certainly reminds me in places of Moon Machine, a track that didn’t make it onto Zoolook, and ended up as a B-side to Fourth Rendezvous. I think it’s the slightly clattering percussion in the first part of the track that does it.
- A Question of Blood (John Carpenter)
Very Carpenteresque this one. And I’d love to see the movie this would soundtrack! If you’ve listened to any of Carpenter’s music, you’ll know he has a taste for expansive, sweeping keyboards, and a more than slightly Gothic sense of style. This is no exception: dark, brooding, atmospheric. It’s really rather good indeed. It also reminds me of older Jarre work, such as a couple of tracks from Deserted Palace. A treat
- The Train and the River (Lang Lang)
To close the album, something slightly different and perhaps surprising (though perhaps not in the context of the previous tracks). A heady mix of the classical, a little of the jazz inflection of JMJ’s boyhood, and some echoes df recent work like Paris Bourges (which also cropped up in a slightly different form in the 2002 Aero show), and is probably a result of the percussive train rhythm that runs through the track . Yet again, there are little JMJ callbacks, like the spangly RV5 fragments and laser harp, the droning bass notes of Oxygène 5, and the Equinoxe 4 phrases. Then, as things wind down, there’s just the hint of the Band in the Rain at the fade, which is really rather lovely.
All through the album little callbacks and “jokes” are inserted into the flow for the careful listener to notice and smile. It is a fairly eclectic wander through the landscape of electronic music And what is great is that, although JMJ’s imprint is on all of these tracks, they all reflect the character of the collaborators too. And each collaborator fits. They all bring something fresh, interesting and different to the table. Better yet, this is only the first volume. The second volume supposedly has Gary Numan, Yello‘s Boris Blank and possibly Sebastien Tellier in the tank. If this is any indication, I can’t wait.