British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap never fails to impress me. With her creative sampling of everyday sounds that she seamlessly blends into her work, her frequent use of unusual instruments, her gorgeous, breathy vocals, and her honest and poetic lyrics, she’s created an impressive collection of music between four full solo albums, multiple singles, and a variety of collaborations. But one of her most heartbreaking compositions is the soft ballad “Half Life” from her 2010 album, Ellipse.
“Half Life” is told from the point of view of somebody who is truly fragile, as Heap describes on Everything In-Between, the making-of documentary about Ellipse. Heap’s traditionally soft vocals are even gentler on the track, an effect that she purposefully crafted in following with the theme of fragility by singing very quietly, very close to the microphone. The instrumentals follow this idea, with the vocals primarily backed by piano, as well as strings that are both plucked and played, plus the addition of softly played trumpet as the song progresses.
Of course, while the purely musical pieces of the song are poignant enough that the instrumental version of the track is packed with emotion, the lyrics are some of the most tragic ones Heap has ever written. While not strictly an “unrequited love” song, “Half Life” is at least the story of a love that is not fully reciprocated; the previously mentioned fragile narrator is so completely attached to the subject of the song, even though they are aware that they mean nowhere near that much to them, that the subject has so many others in their life and that they will never come first. The open admittance is part of what makes the song so powerful; this isn’t somebody who fell in love and got shocked by rejection, it’s a person who admits, “I knew the odds were I’d never win.”
The song most deftly and poetically describes the situation at the start of the second verse, as Heap sings, “My self-worth measured in text-back tempo / It’s been two days and eight minutes too slow.” It’s a creative and incredibly effective means of portraying the agony of waiting too long for a response from somebody very important to you, somebody whose opinion of you means more than you’d like.
As the song closes, the ending of the story is described not as truly fulfilling or in granting any closure; Heap merely sings, “I’m clenching my ticket to the only way out / as you disappear in a puff of smoke.” This in itself might seem like a powerful progression, but as Heap repeats the chorus one last time and reflects, “It’s a half life,” it remains evident that it’s still incredibly painful; regardless, the narrator has to accept their fate and try to move forward with whatever strength they have.
Truthfully, I could do a line-by-line analysis to explain how perfectly written every lyric of the song is, and that isn’t something I can say very often. But “Half Life” takes a phenomenon so thoroughly explored in music and takes it in a bold direction, visiting the painfully hopeless side of it by expressing not anger or frustration, not even desperation so much, but resignation and defeat. The soft ballad is calming to listen to, but it’s full of powerful, screaming emotion.