By: Dave Cooper

Jean-Michel Jarre | Website | Facebook | Twitter

Following his extravagant show on the Gizan plateau in Egypt on New Year’s Eve 1999, it was back to business as usual for Jean-Michel Jarre. The first order of business was the release of his tenth studio album, Metamorphoses, which was destined to be one of Jarre’s most polarising records. It was a major departure for Jarre in two senses: for one, it broke with tradition in terms of the way it had been recorded; for another, it made heavy use of vocals for the first time.

Metamorphoses saw Jarre wholeheartedly embracing the digital domain. Jarre had used digital instrumentation ever since he adopted the Fairlight CMI in the early eighties, and had been an advocate for digital recording technology since Zoolook; now, he moved even further towards the digital domain by making almost exclusive use of ProTools to arrange, edit and manipulate his new songs. This decision was to make more obvious a schism that had developed within his fan-base over the years: a divide between fans who felt that what gave Jarre’s music a distinctive character was his use of analogue synthesizers, and those who felt that the music was more important than the means by which it was created. Internet forums dedicated to Jarre lit up in earnest with mean-spirited in-fighting for the first time; the embers of this particular debate are still glowing to day this day as the two factions debate the merits of Jarre’s adventures in the digital domain.

Perhaps even more divisive was the idea that Jarre’s music was to feature vocals so extensively. Jarre has used vocals in the past, of course: in his early, pre-Oxygène career, as well as since, albeit largely through his extensive and ground-breaking use of the Fairlight. He had recorded ‘live’ vocals before, however, in the shape of Laurie Anderson’s intricate vocalese for his song ‘Diva’ (from 1984’s Zoolook). However, this time it was not a curiosity: this time almost every track on the new album would feature a distinctive vocal. More alarming still to some fans was the idea that some of those vocals were to be Jarre’s own. Jarre had used a vocoder to disguise his own vocals once before, on the title track of his 1988 album Revolutions, but Metamorphoses was to be a much bolder experiment for Jarre.

When Metamorphoses was released in January 2000, it immediately sharply divided its audience. It is doubtful that this was a result of Jarre’s use of ProTools, as apart from a few very obvious stutter edits, the album sounds as organic as ever; it’s more likely that some existing fans felt that adding vocals removed some of the mystique of Jarre’s music, or that those same fans had misgivings about Jarre’s continuing embracing of now-traditional EDM musical tropes: several of the new tracks made very evident use of musical inspiration from Jarre’s recent collaborations with EDM artists.

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It may have been divisive at the time, but listening to Metamorphoses now, the album feels especially fresh and vital. The melding of the EDM influences that Jarre had been soaking up with his own more atmospheric and melodic style is practically seamless – except when Jarre decided to take a more abrasive approach, as with the syncopated cacophony of ‘Bells’. The album is formidably varied, displaying a wide sonic palette that allows Jarre to showcase his numerous guest vocalists. Jarre takes the (heavily processed) microphone himself several times, but it is the cast of guest musicians who provide a lot of the colour. Laurie Anderson appears again for ‘Je Me Souviens’, duetting with Jarre; Dierdre Dubois provides a soaring vocal refrain for the Peter Gabriel-esque electronic World Music of the haunting ‘Miss Moon’; Sharon Corr (of The Corrs) plays sweeping romantic violin for ‘Rendez-vous à Paris’, whilst renowned Egyptian vocalist Natacha Atlas delivers a powerhouse performance, alternately hushed and intimate and explosively powerful, for the lead single from the album, the thundering dance number ‘C’est La Vie’. There are several other guest artists on the album, too: whether this fact also confused established fans who felt that Jarre was diluting his own music with so many guests, is open to question. If this was indeed the case, those fans also forgot Jarre’s long history of artistic collaboration, and his tendency to run towards, rather than away from, a musical challenge.

It’s not all about the vocals, though: elsewhere, the album demonstrated Jarre’s sense of humour – notably on the weather forecast-obsessed ‘Tout est Bleu’ – and his refusal to be pigeonholed. From heads-down techno to sparse piano-led electronica, through sweeping orchestrations, and World music – notably on the spooky ‘Miss Moon’ with its African-style, almost subsonic drums, and the reflective introspection of closing track ‘Silhouette’ – Metamorphoses was nothing if not daring.

However, sales were undeniably disappointing. Whilst Jarre had weathered the advent of EDM with aplomb, it now appeared that the zeitgeist had caught up to him. In making an album that combined his established style with the musical style and ideas of the new vanguard of electronic acts, Jarre, in moving away from the familiar, no longer sat apart from the established mainstream of electronic music, and some of his listeners simply didn’t appreciate Jarre’s need to embrace new musical ideas. There were mutterings that Jarre had “sold out”, and that he had ‘given up’ making conceptual music and contented himself with making – gasp – a ‘pop album’. It’s undeniable that much of the album was club-friendly; but then perhaps his detractors had forgotten that some of Jarre’s earlier work had also been played in clubs at the time of its release. Jarre had become a victim of his own longevity. Now 52, he was old enough to to be considered unfashionable by younger listeners in a way he had not been back in 1976 when Oxygene had been released; at the same time, older fans who refused to embrace the new breed of electronic musicians, found Jarre’s desire to experiment with their musical styles difficult to understand.

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The rest of the decade would see Jarre remain busy making new music, but in very different ways. His next record, Interior Music (2001) was produced for hi-fi manufacturer Bang & Olufsen in a limited edition of just 1000 copies. Comprised of two lengthy ambient pieces (the first of which featured snippets of promotional information in English, French and Danish), the album was essentially a demonstration disc that was designed to be played in Bang & Olufsen stores; the simple card sleeve contains a message stating that the music within was taken from an upcoming album release, but for whatever reason, a wider release never transpired. Perhaps Jarre remembered the Music For Supermarkets album and his decision to essentially make the album one of the exhibits, and decided to do something similar with Interior Music. Either way, Interior Music remains a curiosity rather than an essential release, although given its scarcity, copies command large sums when they do intermittently appear on auction sites such as eBay.

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The following year saw the release of Sessions 2000. Essentially a contractual obligation album to see Jarre through his current contract with Sony, Sessions 2000 is nonetheless revelatory in its own way. It is comprised of six improvisations, their titles (‘January 24’, ‘March 23’, and so on) an indication of the time of year they were recorded. What’s especially striking about these are their exploratory nature: the arrangements and sometimes even the playing itself is not especially polished; the listener is given the distinct impression that they’re listening to Jarre working in the studio, feeling his way towards more complete pieces. There’s a strong jazz flavour to most of the record, notably in the first two tracks. ‘January 24’ is driven by thick, warm bass and late-night chairs-on-the-tables piano, whilst ‘March 23’ trundles along on a programmed percussion line overlaid with twinkling synth wash, driving strings and a sparse trumpet part. ‘September 14’ even manages to sound decidedly like something from the Twin Peaks soundtrack, complete with brushed percussion and Badalamenti-style tinkling electric piano. Occasionally there are ghosts of sections from Interior Music floating around, showing that Jarre’s work in progress was very different in mood and style to that displayed on Metamorphoses.

Free of Sony – and Francis Dreyfus Music (FDM), following disagreements with his old friend and benefactor – Jarre made his first album for Warner Bros in 2003. Again, this new album had an unconventional genesis. The record was commissioned by Frenchman Jean-Roche, ostensibly as an in-house soundtrack for his nightclub, the VIP Room in Paris. The style was a development of that seen on Sessions 2000, which may go some way towards explaining why Jarre was content to  abandon work on that particular work in progress and release what became Sessions 2000 in its clearly unfinished form.

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The new album, Geometry Of Love, was rather more electronic in feel, but embraced the same unhurried, smoky, atmospheric feel that permeated Sessions 2000. It is, however, markedly more complete, musically and thematically, than either of its two immediate predecessors. It also sparked some mild controversy, thanks to its sleeve art, a rotated and processed picture of a female pubis. The model? None other than Jarre’s paramour of the time, actress Isabelle Adjani. Indeed, one of the tracks on the album is entitled ‘Near Djaina’ – ‘Djaina’ being quite an obvious anagram of ‘Adjani’. The press delighted in this story once they got wind of it; it backfired rather on Jarre, who had been keen to keep his love life out of the papers following his divorce from his long-term second wife, actress Charlotte Rampling, in 2002. Adjani was less than amused, and gifted the press another juicy exclusive when she called off her relationship with Jarre in public.

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Perhaps ironically, Jarre’s next release was to feature his next partner quite extensively as well. 2004’s Aero was essentially a ‘Best Of’ collection, albeit one that was re-recorded almost entirely from scratch, and in surround sound (5.1, in this case) for the very first time. Jarre mixed straight readings of some of his favourite tracks from his back catalogue with a handful of new tracks and some quite radical readings of older pieces, linking them with little audio set-pieces designed for surround sound; the results, in their native surround sound, or even in the stereo mix created for CD, are striking to say the least. The sound stage is impressively broad and the music feels totally immersive. As an introduction to, or celebration of, Jarre’s music, it is impressive, and for the first time since Metamorphoses, the album sold quite well. The surround edition of the album came with a visual accompaniment, which is where Jarre’s new girlfriend, actress Anne Parillaud (of Nikita fame) came in. The visual track featured the album’s full 70 minutes of audio, accompanied by a video track that showed only a processed view of Parillaud’s eyes, filmed to show her emotional reaction to Jarre’s music, every emotional from joy to sadness, humour and unease ebbs and flows across Parillaud’s expressive eyes during the playback. It’s hardly an essential experience, but it is at least an interesting and original one.

The release of Aero gave Jarre the perfect excuse to play more of his elaborate ‘one-off’ live shows, a format he had returned to following his last tour with the Oxygène 7-13 material in 1997/98. Jarre had in fact played several large outdoor shows in the interim, most notably in Okinawa, Japan (a show Jarre had titled Rendez-vous In Space), and at Greece’s Acropolis (both in 2001), and a hugely ambitious wind-powered show (perhaps not coincidentally also entitled Aero) at Aalborg in Denmark in 2002. The Aalborg show was marred by extreme wind and rain that turned the concert site into a quagmire, but the 40,000 strong audience who braved the inclement conditions demonstrated that despite Jarre’s commercial decline, he still had plenty of dedicated fans. In 2004, with Aero completed and released, Jarre found himself returning to China; specifically to Beijing, the site of some of his shows back in the early 80s. This time Jarre staged his show outdoors in the Forbidden City itself – a distinct honour for a Western musician – and the show itself was presented in 5.1 surround sound as befitted the Aero material. Jarre, ever the agent provocateur, elected to play the encore of the show a short distance away at a secondary stage set up in Tian-Anmen Square, the site of the now-infamous conflict between the Chinese military and protesting students in 1989. Jarre’s intention was to memorialise the victims of that standoff, but the very fact that Jarre had elected to play in the square caused a measure of controversy back in the West. The show, played live to an audience of 15,000, was broadcast on Chinese TV and indeed many other media outlets in the West, a combined audience of over a billion people. If Jarre’s strategy, in the wake of the uncommercial and/or controversial records he had been making, was to re-connect with lapsed fans, it seemed the Aero album and the Chinese show were successful. The Chinese show was followed the following year by an extravagant show in Gdansk, arranged by Lech Walesa, the founder of the worker’s right organisation Solidarnosc, to celebrate that body’s 25th anniversary. Jarre, ever the egalitarian, took the cause to his heart and the resulting show was truly spectacular and especially poignant; none more so than when Jarre led his band through a moving performance of the shipyard worker’s hymn ‘Mury’ before coaxing Walesa on stage himself. Both the Chinese and Polish concerts were recorded and released as combined DVD/CD sets, the first time that any of Jarre’s shows were specifically recorded with DVD in mind.

This period of less frequent but elaborate live performances was topped off with a performance in the desert of Morocco. Water For Life, as Jarre dubbed it, was a profile-raising event for one of UNESCO’s cause célèbres, the protection of clean drinking water for all. Jarre, still working as an ambassador for UNESCO, put on a suitably spectacular show, assisted by a wealth of local talent. However, the nature of the show – and perhaps more particularly its immediate predecessors – was about to spark another controversy.

Over the years, fans had begun to notice that often Jarre was not performing all his parts live. This was perhaps not a particularly controversial thing to note, as right from Jarre’s very first show, his live performances had often depended quite heavily on playback. This was especially noticeable at the recent shows, however, where Jarre was frequently accompanied only by one or two additional musicians (other than the usual roster of local musicians, that is), however, and some fans began to feel somewhat cheated: after all, surely the point of live performance is to… well, perform live. In Jarre’s defence, there were no shortage of reasons for the choice to use playback. Initially it was largely because the analogue synthesizers were notoriously sensitive, and they tended to de-tune and act erratically if exposed to the elements – or even the closed environments of a concert hall – for any length of time. Over time, other considerations crept in – unpredictable weather, backups for faulty instrumentation, and the considerations of what was often a worldwide audience for live broadcasts all meant that Jarre and his band often felt the need for a safety net. Jarre was forced to address this publically expressed misgivings; to his credit, he didn’t pretend that the use of playback never occurred. Perhaps understandably stung by the accusations that perhaps he was simply incapable of playing truly ‘live’, Jarre began to lay plans for a tour like nothing he had ever mounted before. However, it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, for Jarre was about to spark perhaps the biggest controversy of his entire career.

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In March 2007, Jarre released a new studio album entitled Téo & Téa. A collaboration with Tim Hüfken, the album was almost certainly Jarre’s most mainstream album to date. Eschewing for the most part the textural approach taken by Jarre in the past, the album was heavily rooted in EDM and club culture, and immediately came in for exceptionally harsh criticism from fans. Ironically, the album received generally quite positive critical reviews, amply illustrating the ever-widening gulf between the more conservative of Jarre’s fans and the EDM mainstream. Not stopping to think that perhaps the album’s perceived “shortcomings” were a deliberate embracing of the mainstream EDM they disliked, more conservative fans even dared to publically speculate that Téo & Téa was actually Hüfken’s album, released cynically under Jarre’s name with Jarre’s agreement, in an attempt to reach a wider audience; a speculation that gathered momentum when it turned out that many of the tracks made heavy use of presets for the new Roland MC808 synthesizer – an instrument that Hüfken was heavily involved in creating. It was at this point that Jarre’s management released a statement that made it clear that Jarre was also involved in creating presets for the MC808, and that Téo & Téa was heavily influenced by that process. Hüfken was dismissive of the conspiracy theories in interviews, pointing out that Jarre had wanted to make a more mainstream record and had been very clear about that fact from the outset, and that Hüfken had actually to some degree reined in Jarre’s bolder use of contemporary influences.

Téo & Téa itself remains an outlier in Jarre’s discography. Unabashedly commercial, it usually receives short shrift from Jarre’s longer-term fans; however, no matter how much it sits at one extreme of Jarre’s recorded output, melodically it is unmistakably Jarre’s work – from the ‘Erosmachine’-quoting ‘Beautiful Agony’ (Jarre’s partner Anne Parillaud reproducing the orgasmic female vocal from Jarre’s earlier track), to the Speak-And-Spell machine vocals of ‘Touch To Remember’, and from the classic Jarre-styled anthem ‘Vintage’ to the Magnetic Fields-esque semi-improvised feel of ‘Melancholic Rodeo’, there’s a lot for Jarre aficionados to enjoy. The fact that sturdy EDM-influenced pieces like the opening ‘Fresh News’ and the loping beats of the title track showcased a new approach for Jarre appeared to be the sticking point: evidence, were it needed, that electronic music can be as tribal and as mired in stylistic politics as rock or folk music. Time has been quite kind to Téo & Téa, but at the time fan reaction was largely hostile. Understandably stung, Jarre was moved shortly afterwards to state in an interview that the album was “a mistake”: a very rare admission from an artist that revelled in turning his hand to the unexpected, and a reflection of how personally he took the criticism levelled at the project.

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So it was that Jarre discovered a need to ‘find himself’ again – to re-connect with his artistic process. His solution? To turn the clock back to what remained, in many ways, the wellspring of his success. Jarre re-recorded and re-released Oxygène, packaged with a DVD that showed Jarre and his band performing the album – including some new music in the form of interludes between some of the tracks – entirely live on vintage instrumentation. Jarre then took that show out on the road, which went a long way towards placating the more conservative fans he had begun to alienate in recent years. The shows – demonstrably live, as the foibles of the ancient instrumentation sometimes evidenced – were an enormous success, and did a lot to reinforce Jarre’s status as a true pioneer of electronic music.

The new edition of Oxygène was to be Jarre’s last commercial release until 2015, but Jarre remained extremely active in the interim, touring almost constantly: first with the Oxygène show, and subsequently with the In-Doors and 2010 tours, both of which showcased Jarre’s ‘classic’ material released between 1976 and 1993. All of these shows were much more classically ‘live’ than had ever previously been the case, featuring Jarre and his small band playing a cavalcade of vintage instrumentation alongside new synthesizers and the infamous laser harp. The 2010 tour drew to a close in epic fashion with a huge outdoor show in Monaco in 2011, to celebrate the marriage of Prince Albert II and his new wife. Broadcast live – the occasional mistake included – to a global audience of millions, the show seemed a logical culmination of Jarre’s celebration of his own back catalogue. Notably, the show included ‘Vintage’ from Téo & Téa, proving that Jarre still had a point or two to prove about his most unloved record.

All of which brings us to the present day, and Jarre’s most recent releases, the two volumes of his Electronica project. Conceived as a grand collaborative project, showcasing the myriad strands of electronic music, the Electronica records have been a striking creative and critical success. A love letter of sorts from Jarre to the music that inspired – and continues to inspire – him to become the artist that he became, and a celebration of the electronic music scene in general, this five-year labour of love is in many ways the perfect showcase of Jarre’s own artistic diversity. Typically, the albums have proved divisive among fans: there is the now typical disconnect between those who wish Jarre would return to making music in the vein of Oxygène and those who are pleased that Jarre continues to challenge himself and his listeners. Jarre will return to the stage once more later in the year to present his latest work; it’s impossible to predict what he has in store, but if experience has taught fans of Jarre’s restless muse anything, it is that it’s best to surrender their expectations and take a leap of faith.

In a time when musical genres cross-pollinate each other more than ever before, it seems fitting that France’s original enfant terrible is still making music that challenges us to discard our preconceptions, yet still combines atmosphere, melody and a mischievous sense of adventure to provide an emotional response that some critics still insist that electronic music is incapable of providing. His fearless and visionary approach to composition and live performance has had an enormous impact on untold thousands of musicians. Today, at the age of 67, he remains a giant of the electronic music scene, a respect influence on a wide variety of artists, as the list of collaborators for the Electronica project demonstrates. Jean-Michel Jarre was, is, and will remain, utterly unique in the annals of electronic music.

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