Seventeen years after their debut, and eight albums into their career, a definite pattern has emerged in the Goldfrapp oeuvre. A kind of yin versus yang, or – to steal a phrase loved by Apple tech heads – a ‘tick’ ‘tock’.
On the one hand there are contemplative soundscapes. ‘Felt Mountain’ (2000) provided the primary source, but 2014’s ‘Tales Of Us’ and 2008’s ‘Seventh Tree’ also drank from the same cup. And then on the flip side, there was club-friendly electronica. ‘Black Cherry’ (2003) set the template with its sleazy synth and whip-crack beats, but it was followed by disco glam-rock of ‘Supernature’ (2005) and, now, ‘Silver Eye’ – albeit in a more strung-out fashion.
There is another story too – one that saw them start in the indie shadows, before channelling (by accident?) the zeitgeist into pop success. But by the time ‘Head First’ (2010) came out, bursting with a saccharine sound that had clearly raided the Guilty Pleasures pop library, there was a definite sense of the shark having been jumped, that chart success was being chased a bit too hard. So, it was a good thing that subsequent releases saw them turn off that road and slink back into something more cerebral.
‘Silver Eye’ continues that trend. If ‘Head first’ represented Goldfrapp’s summer of love, then ‘Silver Eye’ is surely their Altamont festival. That sunny optimism has all but faded away into noirish, occultist introspection. It's ‘Black Cherry’s older, more knowing sister. The one who’s lived life that bit harder, wilder and stranger.
It's also an album firmly about the night; that time when all the freaks come out of the woodwork. On more than one song the moon makes an appearance — ‘Systematic’ is a driving, sexy ode to the silver disc in the sky, the high priestess that rules over the night. In it, she becomes the ‘silver eye’, watching us and egging us on. It’s delirious and echoes the heady rush off too many drinks, too soon. Or maybe something stronger.
Another theme is love, but a primal deranged form of love. First single ‘Anymore’ is an animalistic chant about raw passion; the kind which flings human rationality out the window in a cloud of pheromones. The flip side is the blissed-out amour of ‘Moon In Your Mouth’. It may be sweeter, but it’s still as high as hell.
Often Alison Goldfrapp’s lyrics feel more like word paintings than anything intelligible or concrete (‘Zodiac Black’, ‘Become The One’). They are just another thread to weave into the tapestry; another colour adding to the texture. ‘Beast That Never Was’ occupies a dream world. A sense of regrets hangs, but the real story isn't quite lucid. And the music is classic Goldfrapp – rich and swirling. Stick an orchestra on it, fleshed out with a touch of the harpsichord, and it could’ve come straight off ‘Felt Mountain’.
In ‘Become The One’ Alison sounds devilish, possessed. In ‘Zodiac Black’ it’s the music that sounds possessed, while she intones a sweet whisper over the top.
When the album finally appears to reach daylight, it's not pretty sight. ‘Everything Is Never Enough’ appears to cast a critical eye on the post-Trump, post-Brexit world we now live. “Watching nature on a screensaver in wasteland,” Alison sings disdainfully conjuring up glass offices, devoid of culture and humanity. “We’re on fire,” she warns, yet we “watch stars”? Is this a warning for society to wake up, switch off Keeping Up with the Kardashians and actually look at what’s going on around us?
There’s lots to think about here, and much great music to do it too — it’s an album that Goldfrapp fans will love. In the run-up, much was made about the new collaborators that Alison and Will Gregory worked with: John Congleton, Grammy-winning producer of St. Vincent, John Grant and Wild Beasts; and electronic composer Bobby Krlic, AKA The Haxan Cloak. But there’s no hugely discernible change in direction – not in the way you could hear when Arcade Fire teamed up with Stuart Price, for example.
The album perhaps sags a little in towards the later stages – weighed down by the claustrophobic washes of sound. But as a whole, it compliments the rest of their back catalogue well. And Alison’s voice still sounds like one of the most magical things in pop – although in this case, we’re definitely talking more about black magic.
Words: Joe Heaney
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