I was intrigued by the concept of scent intertwined with literature, so I recently tried out some fragrances from Imaginary Authors, an American indie line begun in 2012 by perfumer, Josh Meyers. Today, the focus will be the new 2013 scent, Cape Heartache, followed by The Cobra & The Canary. In a follow-up post, I’ll briefly cover Memoirs of a Trespasser, and Soft Lawn.
According to its website, the Imaginary Authors line was “born from the concept of scent as art and art as provocation.” Each fragrance is entitled with the name of a book, penned by an imaginary author who does not actually exist. All the fragrances are eau de parfum in concentration, and the vast majority were released in 2012.
Imaginary Authors describes Cape Heartache, in the context of an imaginary novel set in a homestead in the forests of the Pacific Northwest in 1881. The fragrance was released this year, and its notes are as follows:
NOTES: Douglas Fir, Pine Resin, Western Hemlock, Vanilla Leaf, Strawberry, Old Growth, Mountain Fog.
I have absolutely no idea what “Old Growth” and “Mountain Fog” are supposed to entail as specific ingredients, but I can tell you what is missing from that list: ISO E Super or, as one of my readers accurately calls the cheap aromachemical, “ISO E Supercrappy” (™ SultanPasha). It’s there — and there is a lot of it!
I tried Cape Heartache a number of time, and the first time, I scrubbed it off after 10 minutes. Three sprays gave me so much ISO E Supercrappy that I had the most enormous migraine imaginable, complete with red-hot shooting pains through my eye and drilling in the back of my skull. As regular readers will know, I am sensitive to certain synthetics, but they don’t affect me physically unless a huge amount is used in the fragrance. Cape Heartache, like all of its siblings, is painfully synthetic, and filled with cheap aroma-chemicals. Sadly, it is not even the worst of the lot.
The fourth time I tried Cape Heartache, I carefully applied less, and I had an easier time of it so long as I never actually smelled my arm up close for any significant amount of time. Obviously, that makes writing a detailed review well nigh-impossible. Even apart from the ISO E, however, I disliked the scent so much, I still scrubbed it off after a couple of hours. However, I’m nothing if not determined, so I finally took two Tylenols ahead of time, avoided excessive application, and forced myself to get down to it. Thanks to the paracetamol, instead of being torturous, I merely find Cape Heartache to be a nauseating, cloying, linear, discordant scent.
Cape Heartache opens on my skin as strawberry shortcake and pine. There are the crisp needles on the forest floor, sweetened pine resin with brown sugar, and buttery, slightly floured, strawberry shortcake biscuits. Seconds later, ISO E Supercrappy follows, smelling like antiseptic toner, typewriter cartridge fluid, and chilled, metallic, peppered chemicals. It grows increasingly strong, adding an industrial bent to the cloying, sweet, top notes. I assume that the ISO E is intended to evoke the “mountain fog” mentioned in the notes, and it certainly does add a note of icy, thin chilliness. It also gives me a painful tightening in my nose at best, and a ferocious, almost crippling migraine at worst.
Cape Heartache’s dominant bouquet is a massive, walloping, thick spread of strawberry jam infused with pine resin. The fruited element has an undertone of floured, buttered bread, and it makes me think of the children’s cartoon, Strawberry Shortbread, as well as the Cabbage Patch dolls of the 1980s.
I refuse to think of Serge Lutens‘ Fille en Aiguilles, a glorious scent to which a number of people find similarities. It would be a travesty to compare the bizarre Imaginary Authors version with Christopher Sheldrake’s masterpiece. Plus, there are differences between the two scents: Cape Heartache has very little smokiness as compared to the Lutens, and its heart is not darkness but strawberry jam, flour, and butter. There is no cheap ISO E Super in the Lutens, the fruited element is different, and the sweetness stems from different things. I can’t wrap my head around Cape Heartache, and it doesn’t help when a touch of vanilla joins the wholly discordant hodge-podge.
Cape Heartache turns softer, sweeter, and less heavily piney after ten minutes, though the typewriter toner fluid of ISO E Super continues to thrum away. During one test, its peppered, prickly, spiky tones completely overwhelmed the strawberry pine, while on another occasion, the synthetic stood more to the sidelines. The quantity that you apply clearly makes a difference. After an hour, Cape Heartache is a blur of strawberry and pine resin, with fluctuating levels of vanilla and floured, buttered bread nuances. The scent never changes from its core essence, remaining in one linear line until its end almost 11.5 hours from the start. The sillage was soft after the second hour, though the fragrance was strong when smelled up close for quite a number of hours afterwards.
I could not bear Cape Heartache, but I’m in a distinct minority on that point. The blogosphere is filled with joyous raves about the scent, and how it’s perfect for winter. Perhaps if you have a fondness for strawberries, pine, and very sweet scents, along with total anosmia to ISO E Super, you may enjoy it. I would never recommend it, though.
THE COBRA & THE CANARY:
When a tip from a clairvoyant leads 23-year old Neal Orris to a rural Connecticut barn housing his deceased father’s secret obsession, a pristine 1964 Shelby Cobra Roadster, it is the getaway ticket he was desperately searching for. After liberating his best friend Ike from his dead-end job on the family farm, the two hit the open highway. Aiming for the Palm Springs race tracks, their journey is a blur of seedy motels, cool swimming pools, hot debutantes, cocktails, and cigarette smoke. Each stop finds the friends inventing new pseudonyms and personas for themselves, their innocent game hurtling into the depths of decadence and desolation.
NOTES: Lemon, Orris, Tobacco Flowers, Leather, Hay Fields & Asphalt.
It’s a lovely story, but The Cobra & The Canary was hell on earth for me. I mean it. The fragrance is laden with a cheap aromachemical that made me feel as though I’d been punched in the nose, had a scalpel scrape off the skin inside, and had a bloody nose. I have never had that reaction to a fragrance before, and it’s been a while since I experienced genuine physical pain in sniffing a fragrance. Each and every time.
The degree of the painful rawness that The Cobra & The Canary triggered in my nose makes me wonder if the fragrance has Norlimbanol, an ISO E-like cousin from Givaudan’s stable of aromachemicals that has an incredibly dry feel, and is used to recreate a leather nuance. The note in The Cobra & The Canary doesn’t smell identical to the Norlimbanol that I’ve encountered it previously, but the scent has dryness to a massive, sharp degree and there are also moments a few hours into its development where there was a definite ISO E-like tonality.
It’s undoubtedly something related to Norlimbanol, but whatever the actual synthetic may be, I felt actual, genuine physical pain every time I sniffed the scent — and I’ve tried it a few times. The first time, I had such a sharp pain in my nose and behind my eye, I had to scrub it off almost immediately. The next few times, I lasted a bit longer, but not by much. I finally gave it a full test, but my nose had to recuperate for two days afterwards from the metaphoric skin scraping.
The Cobra & The Canary opens on my skin with sun-sweetened lemon and dry, chemical synthetics. There is a floral element that vaguely resembles iris, but more frequently smells like a combination of lemony linden blossoms with a touch of narcissus. There is a subtle whiff of blackened leather and hay lurking underneath in these early moments, but it was hard to detect under the tsunami of synthetics. Initially, the latter merely smelled dry, but it soon transformed into a stronger tarry, rubbery note like the dry blackness of an asphalt road on a scorching day. The Cobra & The Canary’s olfactory list mentions asphalt, along with leather, and they’re definitely both there. As a whole though, the fragrance’s overall bouquet in the first minutes is of lemony florals with sweetness, a touch of hay, a subtle whiff of tarry leather, and an arid aromachemical.
The Cobra & The Canary starts to shift after 15 minutes. The lemon note begins to fade, and is replaced by a more prominent orris butter aroma. Something about the iris’ undertone in combination with the other notes evokes an industrial cleaner, along with carpeting in a sterile office. The leather element grows increasingly strong at the same time. It’s blackened and dark, with rubbery undertones akin to birch tar, though it lacks the diesel or smoky undertones of a truly birch-based creosote. Instead, it smells more like rubber latex, and is infused with the scratchy, sharp, synthetic aridness. By the start of the second hour, the synthetic leather has taken over much of The Cobra & The Canary, followed by the iris butter and the smell of industrial cleaner. Trailing behind in last place is the first suggestion of a soft suede with the tiniest hint of something powdery.
Over the next few hours, the leather and the Norlimbanol-related synthetic slowly give way to the iris butter. The Cobra & The Canary turns into an iris butter scent, with a touch of powder and a tarry, rubber latex edge by the middle of the 4th hour. The industrial cleanness replaces the dry arid, asphalt note as the dominant chemical, but both are much more muted than they were initially. Still, they hover under the top notes, giving me the feel of a nose bleed each time I smelled the fragrance up close.
Eventually, The Cobra & The Canary turns into a dry, powdered iris suede scent with greyish, industrial-smelling cleanness and general dryness. By the end, it’s a vague blur of something iris-y with that industrial signature. It lasted well over 12.5 hours on my skin, by which point, I’d had enough of the bloody thing and washed off the final traces.
ALL IN ALL:
I realise that I am more sensitive than most to certain synthetics like clean white musk, ISO E Super, Kephalis, and Norlimbanol. Aromachemicals usually have much larger molecules than other olfactory ingredients, which explains some of my reaction. This degree of pain, however, is pretty rare for me. It’s been more than 24 hours since that last test of The Cobra & The Canary, and the inside of my nose still feels a touch raw and bruised.
Experiencing actual, physical pain from perfumery never puts me in a good mood, which is why I’m going to eschew my usual approach to reviews. I normally try to include other people’s experiences, both positive and negative, to give a full, comprehensive picture of a scent. I don’t care enough to do so this time. Suffice it to say that Imaginary Authors has its fair share of admirers, and I seem to be in the minority. I also seem to be far from the target audience, as I don’t enjoy the chemical signature that I detected in all the Imaginary Author scents. Unlike some, I don’t consider the heavy use of intense synthetics to be appealing, revolutionary, or creative perfumery.
Perfume tastes and reviewing are inherently subjective, personal matters. For me, all the Imaginary Authors fragrances that I ordered and have tried (which is half of the line at this point) are terribly cheap in smell, synthetic, simplistic, unpleasant, and largely linear. The perfumes cost $85, so they can hardly be filled with expensive oils and luxurious essences, but I am not judging them by the standards of an Amouage scent or something three times the IA price. (Plus, I’ve certainly given plenty of bad reviews to Amouage, Puredistance, Kilian, Armani, Serge Lutens, and other expensive lines for using cheap aromachemicals.) I’m judging Imaginary Authors in a vacuum, with each as an individual creation. And none of the scents is my personal cup of tea.
There are plenty of people who like The Cobra & The Canary, and I know for a fact there are tons who absolutely worship Cape Heartache. I’m glad it works for them.