[Review] Jean-Michel Jarre: Magnetic Fields (1981)

Another symphony of circuity without a single hair out of place.

Kronomyth 5.0: Champs de LED.

I’m of two minds on this album, one human and the other artificial. My natural intelligence enjoys Magnetic Fields for its efficiency, energy and perfect balance of artistry and circuitry. Yet, I also can’t escape the suspicion that much of this music will become virtually indistinguishable from the AI-generated music of the future. With the advent of the Fairlight computer musical instrument (CMI), which Jean-Michel Jarre uses here for the first time, it becomes harder to distinguish between man and machine in the final product.

I don’t mean to detract from the achievement of Magnetic Fields. It may be Jarre’s most interesting album to date, with a multipart electronic excursion on the first half (Magnetic Fields Part 1), and a series of shorter, playful pieces on the second half. Magnetic Fields Part 2 and Magnetic Fields Part 4 are intoxicating tunes that were deemed suitable for radio play, and rightfully so. Magnetic Fields Part 3 features trains and toys in a wonderfully luminous piece reminiscent of Jarre’s German counterparts (Cluster, Kraftwerk). The album closes with a delightful diversion, The Last Rumba, that you’ll wish could last forever.

It’s easy to lose sight of the artistry in Magnetic Fields, such is its simplicity. I’ve made a similar mistake with Vangelis in the past. Yet perfection is never an accident, and Magnetic Fields is nearly a perfect record. There doesn’t seem to be a single note out of place. The fact that Jarre releases albums infrequently suggests that they’re the beneficiary of much thought. That would certainly seem to be the case here. Even if the melodies themselves are simple (and they are), their perfect execution is not a simple matter. Everything sounds exactly as it should, every note has a purpose and falls perfectly into place.

Personally, I prefer the accidental discoveries of musique concrète to musique calculé, but you probably don’t want to follow the advice of someone who uses French terms and then puts them in italics. There’s an immediacy and directness to Magnetic Fields that in some ways feels like the culmination of what man and machine can achieve together in the field of music. Whether machines can create music just as satisfying without human involvement remains to be heard, but it’s all synthesis after a sort, and I suppose that arguing over organic or inorganic synthesis is just splitting heirs.

Original elpee version

A1. Magnetic Fields Part 1 (17:55)
B1. Magnetic Fields Part 2 (3:50)
B2. Magnetic Fields Part 3 (4:41)
B3. Magnetic Fields Part 4 (6:07)
B4. Magnetic Fields Part 5 (The Last Rumba) (3:28)

All tracks composed by Jean-Michel Jarre.

The Players

Jean-Michel Jarre (Fairlight CMI, Oberheim, Synthi AKS, VCS 3, Vocoder 1000) with Michel Geiss (recordings). Recorded and mixed by J.P. Janniaud and Jean-Michel Jarre.

The Pictures

Cover by Remy Magron.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and cassette in May 1981 in France (Dreyfus, FDM/FDM40 18108), the UK (Polydor, POLD/POLDC 5159), the US and Canada (Polydor, PD/CT-1-6325), Argentina (Polydor, 2311 075), Germany (Polydor, 2344 166) and Japan (Polydor, 28MM0044) with innersleeve. Titled Les Chants Magnetiques in France. Reached #6 on the UK charts and #98 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on compact disc on May 1, 1994 in France and the US (Dreyfus, FDM 36142).

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