I wrote in my review of Rendez-vouz that Jean-Michel Jarre is my favourite artist of all time. That review chronicled my entrée into Jarre's music (and the world of Compact Discs), but it was not where Jarre's commercial success began. That milestone belongs to the often cited 'eponymous' debut album, Oxygène. It should be noted that the original album name, in Jarre's native French, is Oxygène, however, the worldwide release gained a slight simplification to Oxygene, which, as an English speaker, I will use throughout this review.
When the album was first released, I was no more aware of it than a tea leaf is aware of the history of the East India Company^, which is to say I was 7 years old, 8 by the time of the international release, and had no real interest in music. If I remember correctly, there were playground quips about smelly socks that came out as "soxygene," which I suppose now was probably derived from the album name entering the lexicon at the time, but I was completely unaware of the music.
Looking back at 1976 we see the height of the ABBA hits sharing the limelight with Chicago, Elton John, and Queen's legendary Bohemian Rhapsody. Barry Manilow, The Four Seasons, and The Bay City Rollers also made a mark on 1976. If we're looking for something a little different, how about Disco Duck, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, my favourite, Play That Funky Music? None of this is in the same league as Jarre's December release of Oxygene.
Although initially released only in his native France, it went to number one in the French charts and was then released internationally in 1977 to similar success, reaching the top 10 in eight countries. This despite critics claiming the album was "bland" and preferring the works of Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream. History would show that publisher Francis Dreyfus's reluctant gamble to press 50,000 copies for Jarre was money placed on the right horse. Oxygene has gone on to sell over 15 million copies and spawned three more albums from Jarre (see below).
Recorded in a makeshift studio in Jarre's home, the album was performed on a variety of electronic instruments, including one digital synthesiser, and recorded on 8-track tape. It was Jarre's third album, the first two being unsuccessful soundtracks. Oxygene was to mark the beginning of a successful and celebrated career for Jarre, as well as being widely recognised as an influence and a starting point for a new wave of electronic music.
I guess, listening with a critical ear, I can see the point those critics had. Oxygene isn't "gripping" or "epic" or even particularly complex. What it is, is very well crafted. By that I mean the elements that exist are all intertwined in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. You could take any of the specific instrument sounds alone and they would be interesting, but unremarkable. Jarre's genius is blending these into a kind of symphony that carries you through the entire work, listening out for changes in tone or shifts in mood. You can hear each instrument at the same time as you appreciate the whole.
While I always like to be accurate with the album and track names, it is of vital importance that we address the proper name of the tracks on the original Oxygene release as, in later years, Jarre released several derivative follow-on works. In one case, an inaccurately named track here may, in fact, refer to a whole different album.
Oxygene (Part I) begins by quietly introducing some of the key sounds that run through the album. It's hard to describe the sounds, except to state the obvious that they are electronic in nature. I guess you might equate some of them to piano and strings. The whole track feels like a pent-up promise of what is to come. Like many Jarre tracks, it goes through distinct phases marked by different key sounds, while still being backed by the familiar. The centre phase gets quite majestic with bass-like and trumpet-like sounds before returning to that promise of what is to come, introducing the basic sounds that will throw the next track into the stratosphere.
Oxygene (Part II) comes seamlessly from the end of Part I. (As is typical of many Jarre albums, gapless playback is a must to get the best experience.) It immediately sets an underlying beat and introduces the shooting stars (I can find no better analogy) into another soundscape full of promise. Then, at precisely 1:41 into the track, they're let loose and the chill^^ starts. This phrase is what makes Oxygene (Part II) my favourite Jarre track of all. At around 3:25 it sets off on another path for two and a half minutes before arriving... at the beach. The sounds, while still electronic, are reminiscent of waves and seabirds.
Oxygene (Part III) starts with a sound like manually plucking the lower octave springs of a piano before getting a serious tone that portends something to come. What I can only think of as a kind of bass-penny-whistle gives a sinister overtone to the serious melody before fading to the singing of birds. Uncharacteristically, the track ends in silence.
Oxygene (Part IV) begins with swirling winds, a few tentative notes, and then begins probably the most widely recognised Jarre phrase of all. Combining many elements of the previous three tracks, it sets a fantastic, timeless melody against some great percussive and atmospheric sounds before soaring to some brilliant keyboard accents. The most melodic track of the album, it could be played on a variety of instruments and still be recognisable and captivating.
Oxygene (Part V) is the longest track on the album at over ten minutes and begins seamlessly from the prior track. Classic synth "pings" fade under organ-like notes that gently lead the listener into a slowly changing, church-like opening. But over its considerable length, this track takes several turns. First, at about 3:30, hard notes add to the melody making it a little heavier before that heaviness begins to take over around half way. Then 5:30 sees a complete change of mood and pace including some stereo panning. The final change comes just before the 7:00 mark with trumpet-like notes taking the lead over the fast-paced sequencer beat. The final minute features waves on the shore overlaid less and less with the sequencer. And finally, seabirds.
Oxygene (Part VI) fades in over the waves and birds, and we return to a sound that is both clearly electronic, but also melodic in a melancholy sort of way. In fact, there are two melodies working together until they gradually blend and then halfway through, the energy picks up as they meld. The birds and waves never leave and accompany us to the end of the track, a whole minute beyond the melody before all slowly fade out.
At just shy of 40 minutes in length, Oxygene explores a number of different electronic sounds and techniques that would come to be the hallmark of Jarre's early works. While the immediately following albums would get punchier, rowdier, crazier, and ever more complex, they would all build on what Oxygene delivered. It is not Jarre's most... anything... album. Not the shortest, nor longest, nor quietest, nor loudest, nor any superlative I can think of. But it is the proto-Jarre album, for which it should hold an esteemed place in any collection.
At this point, it is worth documenting the follow-on works that derived from the original Oxygene.
In 1997, Jarre produced a sequel album called Oxygene 7-13. Despite the intervening 20 years, the album and track names suggest these are a continuation of a single body of work. In fact, the album took some of the same instruments and sounds and re-imagined them for the new musical era.
A year later, Jarre released Oddysey Through O2, which contains remixes of the Oxygene 7-13 tracks by various artists – mostly DJs. This is a haphazard album as not all of the originals are remixed, and some are remixed multiple times, and there is even a non-Oxygene track, Rendez-vous 98, included. Many are infused with house beats that barely let Jarre's sound through. Jarre had final say on the tracks, but it is an album only for die-hard or completionist fans.
Ten years on from Oxygene 7-13, Jarre marked the 30th anniversary of the original release with a new recording of the original tracks using the original instruments. One key difference was the requirement for a live performance to include three additional musicians as the original had included a lot of over-dubbing. The performance was filmed on a stage, in a single take, for an accompanying DVD. If you're an Oxygene fan, I highly recommend watching the DVD — it's mesmerising to watch the performers work their instruments as you hear the results.
Finally, as of writing at least, the 40th anniversary of the original release (2016) saw a completely new album, Oxygene 3. In contrast to the 20th-anniversary outing with Oxygene 7-13, Oxygene 3 takes the original minimalist approach but updates it with modern technology — 31 instruments were used compared to 8 on the original. The album comprises Oxygene 14 through 20.
Oxygene (30th Anniversary) is available on CD/DVD.
For more details on Oxygene 7-13 and Oxygene 3, keep an eye out for future reviews on Subjective Sounds.
^ Apologies to Douglas Adams for this appropriation from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
^^ This is one of a handful of tracks in my music collection that actually makes a chill run through me when I'm listening in a suitable environment.