As always I’m a little bit late to the party, but on a recent European trip I finally managed to get my hands on Jean Michel Jarre‘s Essentials & Rarities box set.
For me, Jean Michel has a slightly chequered musical history. After some fun (and often silly) experimental works in the early seventies (more on those later), he seriously kicked arse for a five year period with Oxygène, Équinoxe and maybe to a lesser degree Les Chants Magnétiques. The eighties seemed to be characterised by a struggle to regain his individual identity without simply repeating himself. His moments of ingenuity (Rendez-Vous) were peppered with more patchy releases (Zoolook and En Attendant Cousteau) and a couple of largely unfathomable ones (Musique pour Supermarché and Revolutions). And a huge volume of live albums, some of which make for more entertaining listening than others.
By the 1990s, he was officially A Legend, and seemed a lot more comfortable with the label. Chronologie and Oxygène 7-13 are both wonderful, but both bring with them an acceptance that “this” was the sound for which he is going to be remembered. Metamorphoses is the slight exception, in which he brought together experimental and pop elements perfectly to create an album which was an almost complete commercial disaster. Hence the subsequent experimental years which followed, with some of his most exceptional albums, such as Sessions 2000 and Geometry of Love, which went almost entirely unheard by the world at large. Oh, and then there was Téo & Téa. Erm…
Anyway, it’s essentially (yes indeed) a double CD set containing two completely separate albums: another “best of” compilation, and a set of very odd early tracks. I think there’s probably some value in comparing the first CD with its neighbours before we do anything else, and just to confuse us mere mortals, most of them have exactly the same name…
- The Essential, also known by the rather better alternative name Musik aus Zeit und Raum (1983) is basically a set of highlights from the first six or seven years of his career, and basically contains snippets from the entirety of Oxygène, Équinoxe and Les Chants Magnétiques as well as a few bits and bobs from Les Concerts en Chine. It all works, as you might expect, but there’s something ultimately very unsatisfying about only hearing three or four minute snippets of these albums. It also suffers horribly from the perils of early CD mastering, so the sound is pretty empty to say the least, particularly when compared to the wonderful remastered versions of the late 1990s. Its main saving grace, however, is the beautiful 7″ version of Orient Express, and on balance I’m very glad that I own a copy.
- Images (1991). The one to own here is the 1997 remaster, which plops on all the secret bonus tracks from all the previously different versions. Admittedly, this leaves it with rather too many tracks, but everything you’ll ever want is near the front, so you’ll be very relaxed for half an hour or so before you find you need to start jabbing the skip button. The mid-album lull kicks in with a bunch of previously unreleased tracks: Moon Machine, Eldorado, and Globe Trotter, none of which are especially breathtaking, and then it continues through some of his less interesting mid-eighties tracks before closing with Second Rendez-Vous.
- The Essential (with the red cover) (2004) seems to have been snuck out by his former friends at Disques Dreyfus, and for some reason I’ve never actually ended up with a copy. Looking at the track listing, it seems fairly pedestrian – there aren’t many surprises on there. The more contemporary tracks, Chronologie (Part 4), Oxygène (Part 8) and C’est la Vie (the latter from Metamorphoses) are oddly surrounded by earlier works, which I can’t help but suspect must make for a slightly odd listening experience, but without hearing it, it’s difficult to say.
- The oddest of all of them, Aero, Aéro or AERO (also 2004), which you can choose to listen to on olde-fashioned “compact disc”, or alternatively you may prefer to watch a DVD of the music with an extremely creepy pair of eyes watching you – it’s your choice really. The best way to think of this album is as a live set – Jean Michel basically recreated the contents for listening in 5.1 surround. There’s a fairly standard batch of “original” tracks from the 1970s, broken up with some distinctly odd new tracks with names like Aerosol, Aeronoxe, and Aerogène.
This time around, you get the distinctly odd Souvenir of China at the top, before launching into a whole bunch of Oxygènes and Équinoxes with zeal. He still has a nasty habit of fading out my personal favourite Oxygène (Part II) before it gets interesting. Most of the ‘essential’ tracks are on there, and there are some nice surprises as well such as Arpegiateur and Calypso (Part 2). Where it suffers is from having multiple tracks from Les Concerts en Chine, while forgetting entire swathes of his later career, although the cynic in me suspects that this may be because these were released by a different record company in the first place.
On balance, though, by sticking to simple rules such as “his early years were his best” and “stick to about fifteen tracks”, this tribute to Francis Dreyfus actually tends towards being the best of Jean Michel’s many compilations, which as tradition now dictates must contain the word Essential. There’s a brief low point in the middle when the choice of tracks starts to falter, and I might have chosen to trim the admittedly lovely Space of Freedom in favour of more Équinoxe (Part IV), but these are all minor niggles really.
Which just leaves us with the Rarities album. Like a lot of people, I was very pleased in 2003 when Jarre finally re-released his 1973 soundtrack album Les Granges Brûlées. Until I heard it, of course. Both this and his debut album Deserted Palace (1972), which I obviously haven’t heard because that would be illegal, have hints of brilliance such as La Chanson des Granges Brûlées, but are mainly fairly dull, and in a couple of cases utterly awful (I’m looking at you, Zig-Zag). So it was with some caution that I approached the Rarities album.
But I’m pleased to report that it’s actually pretty good. As you might expect, you get a bunch of stuff from Deserted Palace and Les Granges Brûlées, as well as his first single La Cage / Erosmachine (1969) in its entirety, early single tracks Hypnose and Black Bird (both 1973) and another early oddity Happiness is a Sad Song (1969). He also had the common sense to omit the bloody awful Freedom Day (1972, see below).
As you might expect, the compilation is hard work to listen to, so it’s worth treating with a little caution. A lot of the tracks are very avant garde, and many lack obvious hooks. At worst, though, they never stop being interesting, and there are some wonderful gems hidden in there if you give them time to show themselves.
The real pay-off comes right at the end of the album, in the shape of a newly remixed version of the La Cage / Erosmachine single by modern-day geniuses Vitalic, who have reshaped the tracks with their contemporary experimental sound and turned them into something utterly wonderful. It might have made a nice circularity if these had received their own release as a 7″ single, but you can’t have everything I suppose.
Overall: Essentials is pretty much essential, and Rarities is also worth hearing, although you might not want to keep it in the car. And as we all suspected, Jean Michel Jarre is definitely the godfather of electronic music.
Since Jarre couldn’t be bothered including it on this set, here’s a taste of his early years with Freedom Day:
You can get both Essentials and Rarities together in a lovely box from places like Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or alternatively skip the Essentials bit and just get the Rarities album on its own from iTunes and the like.