From the very first pure synth murmurings of Oxygène, you know you’re listening to something very different. Far from the bleak, unfriendly synth sounds of the early 1970s, Part I is warm, and welcoming. It’s other-worldly and strange, but at the same time extremely beautiful too.
I would venture to say that there’s nothing quite like Oxygène. Even in Jean-Michel Jarre‘s own career, he may have come close a few times – follow-up Équinoxe (1978) probably came the closest of any of his works, even the anniversary Oxygène 7-13 (1997), which was meant to be a follow-up. But that’s testament to Jarre’s immense creative force more than anything else.
Part I continues for seven minutes or so, slowly growing and evolving into different beautiful forms, but never quite astonishing you any more than it did with its initial appearance. It’s the sudden change to Part II that does, appearing out of nowhere, full of power and energy.
We find ourselves now celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Jarre’s most famous work. I’m always surprised to note that it wasn’t his first album – there were two that came before, as well as a string of largely awful singles – but it’s probably good that he was able to get most of the mistakes out of his system before starting work on the glorious Oxygène.
What’s astonishing really is how little the whole thing has dated. Sure, the drum sounds would fall a little flat if this were coming out today, but everything else is entirely contemporary – or, perhaps more accurately, out of time, as very few people are trying to do anything like this right now.
Part III closes Side A of the album, and is another complete change, a dramatic chord-based piece, which is short and very sweet. Then Side B opens with the well-known and truly exceptional single Part IV.
It’s difficult to know what to say about this now, as so much has already been said about it. This is the piece of music that turns up time and again on every synth compilation known to mankind. It’s amazing to think of a young Jean-Michel Jarre recording this in his kitchen – for that’s where Oxygène was born – and coming up with something this exceptional. I would have probably spent most of my time cleaning the lasagne splashes off my synthesisers.
Part V is the one that charms me the least, although that isn’t really saying much. It’s the longest piece on the album, clocking in at over ten minutes, and itself clearly breaks into two parts – the melodic first half, and the ear-breakingly mixed second (the hard-left and hard-right mixing makes this very difficult to listen to on headphones).
You can interpret this album however you wish, but I suspect it’s fair to think of Jarre’s intentions as wanting to tell the story of our planet, starting with a few rocks colliding in space, through to the beginnings of life. By Part V, we’re hearing the story of human interaction with the planet, initially in terms of advancement and exploration, and then subsequently our steady and ongoing destruction of the place we call our home. If this is indeed the story Jarre is telling us, then Part VI, which closes the album, sees the planet deserted again, and returning to the place where it all began.
Part VI is one of the most beautiful pieces on here – solemn, and somewhat mournful, and leaving the listener pining for more. You really do want this track to go on forever, and so its six-minute duration is a blessing. But eventually it, and this truly exceptional album, do have to come to an end.
With Oxygène, the young Jean-Michel Jarre conquered the world, and showed us conclusively that one man, sitting in his kitchen with a whole load of electronic equipment, is every bit as capable of making beautiful music as a concert hall full of orchestra members. The next forty years have definitely had their ups and downs, but this was where it all began.
Various versions of Oxygène are available – the Live in Your Living Room version is highly recommended, but comes with a re-recording of the original album. If you want a good version of the first release, try this one.