Album review: Jean Michel Jarre (1) – Oxygene (1976)

“Oxygene” is the album that introduced Jean Michel Jarre to the world. 40 years ago he came out of nowhere with a new and unique sound. His inspiration for this album came from a painting given to him by future wife Charlotte Rampling, a painting which shows the Earth peeling to reveal a skull. You will recognize it as the album cover. While not my personal favorite Jarre album, parts of it still appear in my playlists.

For me the influences of Oxygene aren’t only present in today’s electronic music. I hear the reverberations of “Part 1” also in progressive rock, a genre way more connected with ambient music than one would think. Today’s Continuum fingerboard (or Haken Continuum) that musicians like Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater use is part of the natural evolution of the synthesizer. The sound it provides is just as eerie and imaginative. Somehow the opening of “Oxygene” sent me into a concert hall where the wizard Jordan Rudess does his solo intro to one of the monster Dream Theater operas.

“Oxygene” is one of the purest mental space exploration albums you could find. When I listen to this album I always have an image of Jean Michel Jarre dressed in a space suit firing away laser beams at unseen enemies. He’s not only defending the world he takes us in but he’s also creating is at he goes. As the music advances the sparks and electronic pulses add another star or small planet to this infinite canvas. The space between them is filled with sweet metallic melodies that also act as causeways that help me as a listener and voyager stay safe on this trip.

Despite the huge mass appeal of electronic music and the way it can hypnotize hundreds of thousands of people into moving the same way, for me this is one of the loneliest music genres. Maybe it’s the fact that Jean Michel Jarre and his countless heirs usually compose and perform alone surrounded by their instruments and machines, maybe it’s the way this sound makes its way inside me and expands my imagination, creating a word where I place my own dreams and feelings among  the stars the musicians light up. The experience of listening to an album like “Oxygene” is very personal to me and I would feel strange hearing this music other than with headphones on. “Oxygene” is like a liquid metal that once inside morphs into the shape it finds.

Even 40 years later “Oxygene par 4” remains one of my favorite Jarre pieces. This is not just a movement from an album; it’s a fully-fledged theme, hummable and recognizable, the one that still gets me bobbing my head. I still consider this track an anthem of electronic music and I imagine the composer had quite the smile on his face when all the pieces fit together. “Part 4” breathes the joy of music, both writing it and listening to it and is the brightest section from the album. It’s different from the rest of the movements also because it’s not entirely a Jarre composition; the musician adapted a motif from “Popcorn” by Gershon Kingsley, one of the earliest synthpop pieces.

The longest track on “Oxygene” is “part 5” which is always the most complex one. I’ve always thought of this particular piece as the point where Jean Michel Jarre’s early unique space sound meets the sound of the other instrumental music pioneers of the age like Mike Oldfield or Vangelis. This dreamy and sparkling track is the portal that opens up new avenues and new desires to listen to more music similar to it. This is where “Oxygene” leaves the basement and climbs up to meet the outside world.

The dreamy darkness of this album still appeals to me after so many years.

Track rating: 93 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 26 / 40

Album excellence: 64%

Highlights:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

 

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