‘It’s one of my fave LP’s ever, so I’ll bother you about it again some day, but 1976’s Oxygene is a straight-up wonderful album, my parents used to play it in the car at night on long journeys and it really did sound like the future to me when I was 7 – ‘Play the space music again, please!’ was the often heard refrain from the backseat.; it still sounds like the future to me, albeit a retro one. Jarre’s music is really well-constructed, atmospheric and melodic but not hugely complex, he paints his canvass in bright primary colours compared to some electronic artists – which is why he appealed to that elusive 7 year-old rural Welsh demographic, the scale and melody of his compositions are what really register for me, still. At the time as well, he was drawing on a very unfamiliar palette of sounds with the best synths he could buy, or have made for him and there really is something special about the sound of analogue synthesisers used right.’
Damnit! Who wrote that? What am I supposed to add to genius musings like that?!
I’ve been away for the weekend, I drove down to see my mother for Mother’s Day straight after work on Friday night. I was feeling a bit emotionally bruised and tender from the working week and was facing a three and a half hour drive at night in the, ironically, driving rain and sleet. Normally I like having that amount of time alone, it helps me shunt my thoughts around without any inferior mortals around to distract me and I usually just shift my iPod into shuffle and trust to the God of Pod to provide for me. On Friday though I was a bit low and I needed some sounds that were relaxing and warm, comforting and without thinking about it I reached straight for Jean Michel Jarre Oxygene. Parfait.
As I already knew, this is a perfect LP for a night drive. The album is split into six distinct tracks, imaginatively numbered 1 to 6, but the whole point of Oxygene is to sit and let the whole wash over you. From the first tentative sweeping synths twinkling in some half-imagined alien firmament, through the ‘one with the tune’, right out into the slightly dodgy Galactic bossa nova of the last track which ends with a suggestion of tides and whooshy space winds*, it’s a trip. I listened to it all the way through twice without hesitation in my little red space cruiser, being battered with the rain all the while, imagining I was on a far more glamorous planet.
Imagination may be the key here, Jarre’s obviously for inventing and twiddling away at all this but the listeners’ also. We of the Star Wars generation were raised on sci-fi, I was particularly so, my parents were/are still keen fans of it all^, Frederick Pohl, Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison were revered in my household the way football players, or great classical composers might have been in others’. I can’t hear Oxygene without thinking about space and it is that engagement with it that lifts it up for me, other people may well feel differently about it – they’re wrong.
I terms of today’s electronic music JMJ holds up really well. His sense of melody and construction make sure that nothing here ever seems gimmicky, or jarringly dated (pun intended). After letting technology run riot and letting the music run cold and complex, the savvier and better operators on the synth scene dialled their time machines back to late ’78 and started treating themselves to the more stirring, simplistic sounds of analogue synths. I don’t know what makes analogue sound much warmer and more human than digital, in any form of music, but it does; my pet theory is that it is because an imperfect rendering of a sound requires us to connect with it, to meet it part way, that a perfect rendering of a sound in digital does not**. Basically, they are now embracing the retro future that Jarre represents.
None of which highfalutin’ nonsense can explain quite why Oxygene just feels so right. Take ‘Oxygene IV’, which was released as a single in the UK, possibly because it is the track with the most traditional song structure on the album – not only that it has a bubbling, driving bass line and a great sense of melody to boot. Great stuff, it used to crop up on British TV all the time in the late 70’s. There is a nagging sense of wistfulness about it too that I like. Maybe it is only there to tee us up for the full 10-minute ‘Oxygene V’, which still sounds to my ears like a solemn church service hi-jacked by binary bots from Betelgeuse, or maybe that’s just me.
Whilst I have now graduated from the backseat to the driver’s seat, I accept that one of the reasons I love this album so much is that it is the product of strong childhood associations, you probably don’t have those, but Oxygene is still definitely worth a listen. Especially if you’re planning on a long night drive.
Incidentally, until I made myself a coffee just now I had completely forgotten that out of all my LPs Oxygene is the only one I have a mug of^^, that must mean something surely?
PS: Mr Jarre seems to have come down with a bad case of Tubular Bellism over the years, just avoid any re-recordings, extra bits and reinterpretations and you’ll be fine.
*I’m big on whoosh space winds.
**anyone wishing to contribute financially to my soon-to-be landmark academic research, The Analogue Conundrum: Sounds and Shit Like That please leave used notes in an envelope stuffed behind the cistern in the gents’ toilets at the train station, third cubicle from the left.
^to the point of being embarrassing Trekkies.
^^Since the Permission to Land one I bought Mrs 1537 broke.