It’s hard to believe Jean-Michel Jarre is seventy, not least because this is an album that has a great deal of energy and vitality. More so considering the recent work rate yer man has been putting in. This is his fifth release since Electronica volume 1 first arrived in 2015. One of those, Planet Jarre, was admittedly a retrospective, but still contained re-recordings and new material. The third part of the Oxygène Trilogy got sometimes lukewarm reviews from the critics, but this is a different proposition altogether, and arrives forty years to the day of the release of its antecedent.
I don’t normally like going through albums track by track, but it seems to work as an approach here, so here we go.
The Watchers and Flying Totems
The album opens with The Watchers, which is evocative of the opening of the original Equinoxe (and even Rendezvous, just a little). However, instead of the clean bright sounds of the original Equinoxe 1, beneath the soaring chords now is the faint chirruping and sussuration of machines, a sign of things to come.
They both also remind me a lot of Vangelis (specifically The Motion of Stars, Will of the Wind, and Metallic Rain from 1988’s Direct, an album for which I have a deep and abiding love, as well as parts of Blade Runner).
Robots Don’t Cry
JMJ has a habit of juxtaposing what seem like jaunty enough rhythm lines with something melodically a bit more melancholic, and he does it again here. It’s a bit like Chronologie 6 at the start, as he pulls the Ouverture trick(1) off to good effect again. The thing about this piece is that is feels a bit more like something that would have fitted into Oxygène, though maybe that’s because of the MiniPops and the VCS underpinning it all. It’s all rather bittersweet, like Band In The Rain was all those years ago, though not perhaps quite in the same way.
All That You Leave Behind
Both this and the piece that follows wind the pace down a little. The opening here is mournful, and has hints of the beginning of Ethnicolor, and of parts of Oxygène 3, before settling into something that feels a little like John Barry’s Persuaders Theme done as a waltz, or even something which would have been at home on either the under-regarded Geometry of Love or Deserted Palace all those years ago.
Neither of these are complaints. Especially not in the former case because it’s a piece of music I love, burned forever into my head since childhood.
If The Wind Could Speak
Now theres’s a Vangelis title if ever I heard one, though rhythmically it sounds more than a little like Kraftwerk, but undercut with the rather lovely quiet chattering of what could very well be children’s voices. Short but sweet.
Well, hasn’t this one divided opinion? Some of the early reviews I’ve seen have called Infinity ‘cheesy’. I don’t think that’s fair at all, though I will admit that the very first time I heard it in situ with the rest of the album, it felt just a bit odd. I don’t feel that way now, but it took a few listens to get used to it. When I heard it for the very first time (on its own) I was driving to work the morning the preview had appeared in Apple Music, and when I did, I laughed.
Yes, I laughed. I laughed because it filled me with such a feeling of unabashed happiness. It starts off sunny and bouncy, and you’re gently lured into thinking of Chronologie 8 or even of Calypso (with the splashing of water at the start especially). And that’s nice. Then you get those sort of vocalised parts that have a sniff of older work like Zoolookologie, El Dorado, or Globe Trotter, and that’s even nicer(2). And when all that is rolling along nicely…BOOM!…at around 1.50 it goes all Equinoxe 5 on us. It’s just joyous, with those huge juicy splashes of happiness all over it. And then that joy starts to fade away…
Machines Are Learning
…to be replaced by something rather more mechanical. This definitely has a hint of Autobahn, but with the vocalised parts sitting over the top it feels slightly unsettling.
The main surprise here is that this was the bit of the album we didn’t even know was going to be there, because it had already appeared on Planet Jarre just a couple of months ago. It feels now like it was hidden in plain sight because it so obviously belongs here.
The mood is darker, and rather more subdued here leading out of the mood of the previous track, underpinned by a faintly martial rhythm, which breaks out rather more stridently things go on. It fits perfectly, and conveys to me at least a faint feeling of disquiet that the machines are indeed learning. But what are they learning?
Don’t Look Back
I can imagine this arranged purely for strings, like a quartet. It’s very simple in structure, with a repeated string figure, sitting over basslines that feel rather more Oxygène than Equinoxe. And again it’s all rather melancholic.
If Robots Don’t Cry got a mixed reception before release then it’s pretty much a guarantee that this will be the one to divide people afterwards. It begins with a callback to The Watchers, but with a hint of Equinoxe’s opening and closing refrains thrown in too. It’s the first of several snatches of other movements to appear here. There are even hints of earlier work like Calypso 3 floating around too, again probably because of the water motif that is weaved through the album as a whole. In many ways it make me think of the later stages of Zoolook, creating a layered sound picture.
It really doesn’t have a particular driving melody line at all, and you even say it meanders. I honestly think that’s the intention: it’s indeterminate, like the premise of the album. Things could go one way or the other at any point, and it’s difficult to tell which. And then with a brief shimmer, and a fade, it’s all over.
This album was never meant to be a straight sequel to Equinoxe, and so it proves. It’s an altogether denser and more complicated experience than the sparkle that marks much of its parent. That bright, mostly optimistic, futurism is here undercut sometimes by a sense of foreboding or disquiet. There is a hopeful tone to part of it, a sense that we can enjoy a future where we live well with technology. But when it gets darker, things sound rather more sombre, and fearful that we might be engulfed by it all instead.
The Vangelis comparisons won’t leave me either, especially the parts that remind me of Blade Runner, This shouldn’t be a shock given that the movie is now such an integral part of our shared language when talking about technological dystopianism. I suspect that this must have leaked into JMJ’s head too as part of the writing process. It’s not a complaint either, because I love that aural texture and think it works perfectly here.
(1) Listen to it at double speed and you get the beginning of Magnetic Fields Part 1.
(2) Not least becasue of my adiding love of Zoolookologie, especially in its extended François Kerkorvian remix version, which I think is probably my favourite piece of music ever.