Review Summary: The ninth circle of hell for those who hate John Hughes movies.Seventh Tree
, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s fourth album, was a bit of a detour from the glossy, ‘80s pop sheen of their last couple of records, drawing more from Brian Eno-inspired soundscapes, nature, and pagan worship than your typical electro-diva effort. Predictably, it also sold less than Goldfrapp’s previous work, so it should come as little surprise that their fifth album returns unabashedly to the roots of Goldfrapp’s [financial] success. I could say that Head First
combines the up-tempo, synth-heavy electronic dance of Supernature
and Black Cherry
with some of the ambient, folkier sounds of their superb debut and Seventh Tree
, but that sort of mixture is more often the exception rather than the rule. No, Head First
rather brazenly throws everything to the wind and kneels to its glam-pop influences without an ounce of shame.
Nevertheless, this is catchy as hell. Gregory has always shined brightest when the beats bumping behind Goldfrapp’s airy vocals are pulsating, oscillating glimmers of sound, usually making liberal use of bass and space-age synthesizers. One listen to “Believer” will have that chorus stuck in your head for days, and while jams like “Alive” and “I Wanna Life” are so disco, so shiny and slick that it almost feels wrong to listen to them without dusting off a polyester pantsuit and platform shoes, there’s something refreshing and exhilarating about such straightforward retro pop. There are plenty of synthesizers and effects, but it enhances rather than obscures Goldfrapp’s inviting voice, and many of the hooks here, particularly the dark, glitchy rhythm of “Shiny and Warm,” blow away most current Top 40 material.
That’s hardly an excuse, however, for just how dated some of the sounds come off. Lead single “Rocket” is the perfect example: just the kind of smart, toe-tapping songwriting one has come to expect from Goldfrapp and Gregory, but trapped under the weight of synths that sound as if they came straight off the rack at your local Sam Ash, circa 1984. Perhaps that was the sound Goldfrapp was going for, but on too many songs here the effect comes off as cheap, dated, and more than a little off-putting. It also causes much of Head First
to bleed together, resulting in something like the ninth circle of hell for those who hate John Hughes movies.
Luckily, the duo mixes it up enough as the record winds down to prevent any sugar overdose. There’s a Seventh Tree
throwback on the haunting, vaguely threatening “Hunt,” and the aforementioned “Shiny and Warm” tops most of the earlier, more immediately accessible dance tunes. Closer “Voicething,” meanwhile, is such a 180-degree shift in sound and mood that it’s as if Goldfrapp had just thrown her hands up in the studio and said, “Well, *** it, I like everything we did on Felt Mountain
better.” It’s surprising how relaxing and revitalizing the continued layering of Goldfrapp’s many soft whispers and murmurs can sound on top of the record’s most restrained beats, and it’s a near revelation in just how versatile Goldfrapp can be after the nonstop party that precedes it. Head First
is nothing if not a party album, especially if said party has a retro theme, and on that count Goldfrapp have outdone themselves once again. But where Seventh Tree
was inconsistent, Head First
suffers from a lack of much of any substance, and even the occasional toss into left field is notable only for its extrinsic nature. Then again, who ever said great disco needed substance?