Jean-Michel Jarre – Zoolook

By 1984, Jean-Michel Jarre‘s career had already taken some pretty extraordinary turns. After a few false starts, it had exploded with Oxygène from late 1976 onwards. The follow-up Équinoxe (1978), while great, had offered few surprises, and while 1981’s Magnetic Fields took three years to appear and saw Jarre explore digital synthesis for the first time, it still has a lot in common with its predecessors.

Then things had gone a bit crazy – he became the first western musician to tour China, to huge acclaim, and released an excellent album to chronicle the tour (The Concerts in China, 1982). The following year, he did both the most and least commercial things possible, releasing just one copy of Music for Supermarkets and immediately destroying the master tapes, and then reemerging with a somewhat premature compilation, The Essential Jean-Michel Jarre.

By 1984, Jarre’s exploration of sampling was probably somewhat overdue, but the things he was doing with his samplers were quite unprecedented. Zoolook opens with the disturbing deep choral sounds of the twelve-minute epic Ethnicolor. All the way through this album, the sounds that he throws our way are warped, bizarre, and often somewhat disarming. He has taken vocal snippets, tweaked and retuned them, and layered them frankly all over the place. If anyone else had done this, it would have been a total mess, but Jarre seems in control here. It’s not the most exciting or uplifting piece of music ever written, and it hasn’t necessarily dated well all the way through, but it’s definitely always interesting, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

One of the most interesting things about Jean-Michel Jarre is the way he uses his music to explore humanity, and Zoolook is probably the earliest tangible example of this, portraying 25 languages from the human zoo in the form of weird, layered sound. Prior to this, it had been much more subtle, with layer upon layer of synthesiser. Now, many of those voices were human, but sometimes barely recognisably so.

Diva had appeared the previous year on Music for Supermarkets, but unless you were the lucky buyer, who I imagine has never actually listened to it, or heard it on its radio broadcast, or bought one of the bootlegs that inevitably immediately appeared, you’ll never have heard it. Laurie Anderson appears at this point, chattering inanely over a slightly cheesy arpeggio. On an album of odd tracks, this is definitely one of the oddest.

What comes next depends entirely on which version of the album you have. Originally, and on most versions, it’s a version of the title track Zoolook. The track on mine is bizarrely exclusive, Zoolookologie (Remix), a reworked version of the second single from the album. It’s a delightfully chirpy track that was clearly never going to do much on the charts – in spite of being packaged as a double 7″ in the UK with Oxygène (Part IV) on the other disc, it still didn’t go far.

All versions put the delightful Aboriginal-inspired Wooloomooloo next, probably the best track on here so far, if quirky samples aren’t entirely your thing. Which is probably true for most listeners picking this album up for the first time now – you were no doubt thrown off your stride somewhat by the first track, and you might have enjoyed its atmospherics too, but this steady piece provides a welcome distraction.

Then comes the jazzy title track, apparently also in remixed form, although I can’t imagine many could describe what’s different. Once you get beyond the great construction of vocal samples, it isn’t a particularly inspired track – thirty-five years later, it just sounds like the theme tune from a sports programme on television. At the time, though, it must have sounded quite unusual.

Blah Blah Café is next, still using samples to heavy effect, and still with a slightly odd, awkward feel, but this time the melody holds things together well. It’s pleasant, although towards the end, you might find yourself wishing it was a little shorter.

The album closes with Ethnicolor II, a similarly atmospheric piece to the opener, but lacking the need to punch you in the face with samples, this track doesn’t build into anything as huge.

Even now, thirty-five years on, Zoolook is a fascinating album. It’s not necessarily always a good album, though – the sample work is intriguing, and sometimes beautiful, and there are plenty of classic Jarre elements, but sometimes it’s also unpleasantly cheesy, and occasionally it’s actually pretty awful.

For all of that, though, Zoolook has its place in history, as one of the first sample-based albums, and it remains one of the most interesting. It’s well worth a listen, even if the words above don’t capture your imagination. Listen to the voices, and make your own mind up.

As with all of Jarre’s back catalogue, various reissues of Zoolook are available, with varying changes, errors and problems. Start your research here, and see where it takes you.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine

I don’t know, you wait eight years for a new Jean-Michel Jarre album, and then three turn up at once. Sorry, I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but it is amusingly apposite. The fun but definitely questionable Téo & Téa (2007) left a slightly iffy taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and apart from the re-recorded and questionably legal version of Oxygène that followed the same year, there was then an extended silence until 2015.

What he was doing, it turns out, was working with every other electronic musician under the sun to create a two volume album, Electronica. The first opens with the sweet title track The Time Machine, with Boys Noize, and then comes one of the opening singles, Glory, with M83. So far, so pleasant.

Both of these albums have been criticised for being a bit disjointed, which, while not entirely unfair, seems a bit of an odd thing to say – of course they are, they’re effectively compilations of collaborations. But the sequence is generally logical, and there isn’t really anything particularly bad on here, so it’s hard to be too critical.

Fellow French musicians Air turn up next, for Close Your Eyes. Some tracks seem to have a lot more of Jarre, and others have a lot more of his collaborators on them, and in general, this one ends up sounding like Air might if they employed Jarre as a producer. That is to say, pretty good.

The first time you can really call something here “brilliant” is on the two parts of Automatic, both collaborations with Vince Clarke. For Clarke, this sounds a lot like his recent solo and collaborative electronic projects, but Jarre’s influence is clearly audible here too, particularly in Part 2, and both halves of the track really are excellent.

The increasingly great Little Boots turns up next, pretty much the only musician other than Jarre to make the laser harp part of their live show, and their collaboration is If..! (yes, two dots). While it’s certainly true that Jarre did something on this one, it’s difficult to know exactly what, but it’s a great song nonetheless.

They keep coming – Immortals, with Fuck Buttons, is an excellent meeting of minds, and while Suns Have Gone with Moby may not be the high point of either artist’s career, you have to be glad that it happened.

It is undeniably an odd list of collaborators though – which is not to say that Gesaffelstein shouldn’t be here – after all, why not? Few might put him in their top thirty living artists of all time list, but the resulting track Conquistador is pretty good. This isn’t so true of Travelator (Part 2) (there doesn’t appear to be a part 1), with Pete Townshend, which I’m not convinced does the legacy of either great musician any particular favours.

That isn’t true of what is apparently Edgar Froese‘s last recorded work, Zero Gravity, which after so many decades finally brings us the joint credit of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream, and it’s ever bit as excellent as it should be. It’s also nice to see Jarre revisiting his earlier musical partner Laurie Anderson for the decidedly odd Rely on Me.

Where these two albums both go a little astray for me is with the number of tracks – they’re varied, but after thirteen pieces of music and with no end in sight, you’re always going to be a little weary. Towards the end of the first volume, we get a fun trance excursion with  Armin van BuurenStardust, followed by the weirdly dubby Watching You, with 3D from Massive Attack.

Right at the end, John Carpenter turns up for the appropriately creepy A Question of Blood, and finally pianist Lang Lang accompanies an atmospheric piece on album closer The Train & The River. It’s a long, varied, and complex album, but in general it stands well on its own, and if you consider yourself a fan of any sort of electronic music, you should probably be a fan of this.

You can find part 1 of the Electronica project at all major retailers.