Review Summary: you better run for your lives
Alison Goldfrapp has one of the most alluring voices in music. It has always been the anchor for the music Goldfrapp (the band) has made. It is the reason why, even in their oddest moments, they remain listenable and enjoyable. On their first (and still best) album, Felt Mountain
, Alison purred over sci-fi noir strings and harpsichords, oozing sensuality. On Black Cherry
, she jutted her way through tangled electro pop, sometimes in an almost sleazy way. Then, on Supernature
, undoubtedly their breakthrough album (though it is still their least essential in this reviewer’s opinion) she sported the dress of a glam pop goddess. Another 180-degree shift came up on Seventh Tree
, where she unfurled her honeyed voice over some dreamy, folksy guitars and strings. And finally, they did a third 180 shift back to dance pop for Head First
, an extremely unabashed stab at 80s pop. It worked, mostly. (Though perhaps it's no surprise that the more interesting song on that album consisted of little more than various layers of Alison's wordless vocals).
And now here we are, shifting again. By now, it should come as no surprise that Goldfrapp have changed directions once more for their new release – it seems they do that between almost every release – but the extent to which they go in this direction may startle some. Its closest touchstones in their catalog are Felt Mountain
and Seventh Tree
, almost forming a hybrid of the two. Some fans have even jokingly renamed it “Seventh Mountain." Warm, simple guitars are plucked and strummed over sweeping, lush strings. Add some piano and a handful of subtle, stray synth strands and that’s about all there is to it. And of course, Alison’s heavenly vocal chords.
The album kicks off with their darkest opening yet. “Jo” explodes to life with high strings, and then they calm right down about 10 seconds in, settling into a lurch. A looping piano riff plays ad infinitum while Alison coos with a deceitful sweetness about blood red rivers, wind singing by the river, and ripples of black. It’s not until the deadly chorus of “Run / You better run for your lives” is repeated again and again that the mood really settles down, like a set of rose thorns to the skin. It won’t take long for listeners to realize that the words Alison sings on this album are very commonly obscured, either by reverb or just by general style of singing, akin to mumbling. Something similar was employed on Seventh Tree
, but it works much better here. While some might take issue with the purposeful ambiguity, it actually adds nicely to the mystique of the record. It is refreshing to listen to what at many points sounds comparable to a singer-songwriter record that upends the genre’s standard discernibility of lyrics.
It also helps that after a few close listens, words start to become clearer. One of the most accessible tracks here, “Annabel,” tells the story of a young hermaphrodite child (“When you dream you only dream you’re Annabel”). The gorgeous “Simone” describes a tale of a woman who is sleeping with her mother’s lover. And the relatively upbeat, resplendent closer “Clay” details the love that a soldier holds for one of his fallen fellow men. Not every song is as easily pinpointed as these, but each one contains snatches of clear lyrics. “Pull up the blinds / Open the door wide / Feel the cold arrive in my bones” she sings on the lovely “Drew.” On the other hand, songs like “Laurel” (which sounds distantly related to their debut’s earth-shattering “Deer Stop”) burble and melt with beautiful indecipherability, somehow remaining tender.
For those who are disappointed by the general one-note-ness of it all, Goldfrapp have given a little taste of their more dance-oriented past with “Thea,” the only song with a groove or any sense of electronic pulse. It’s a great song, a good showcase for both the singer and the musicians. But for some, it may be too little too late. For others, it might not fit in at all. I think it strikes a good balance, though, a welcome balance, between their different outputs in the past. Will Gregory’s arrangements on Tales
are subtle but expansive throughout, often seemingly plain on the surface but they give up more information about themselves on repeated spins. And Alison sings for her life throughout, remaining the rightful star.
There aren’t really any weak songs on Tales of Us
once you give over to its slow charms. Its only flaw is that it is a definite mood record, and if listened to at the wrong time, its singularity could be a snooze. But there is still a soft urgency and sensuality to this music, even while it remains both possibly their strangest album and steering closer to traditional accessibility than many of their others. A paradox seems fitting though, for a band who switches their style every couple of years. Knowing these two, their next album could very well be a straight hip hop record (actually that’d probably be awesome), but for now, this outfit suits them quite well.
Final Score: 4.2
Key Tracks: Jo, Thea, Simone, Clay