Goldfrapp have a reputation for reinvention and replenishing their sound on each album, but advance word on 2010’s Head First was that it was something of a retread back to the supposedly more commercial synth-pop sounds of Black Cherry (2003) and Supernature (2005), after the “pastoral folk-inspired” Seventh Tree (2008) (which, really, was a lot more than that.) The truth is that it’s not a retread by any means; it’s by some distance Goldfrapp’s warmest, most joyous, and most light-hearted album to date.
With Black Cherry, Goldfrapp added a more lascivious, stark electro quality to their sound after Felt Mountain (2000) announced the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory as something of a nu-Portishead: all atmospheric, subtle electronics and spy soundtrack influences. But really Goldfrapp’s pop smarts were always there from the very beginning; “Human,” from Felt Mountain, has a Shirley Bassey sophistication on record but it’s not a stretch to imagine it with a different, electro pop arrangement and slotting in nicely on Black Cherry. By the same token, Black Cherry wasn’t really the complete departure it was made out to be. Sure, songs like “Train” and “Strict Machine” would have stuck out like a sore thumb on the debut, but the likes of “Hairy Trees” and “Deep Honey” were more akin to the earlier album.
So, rather than “reinventing” their sound on each album, Goldfrapp continue to add new ingredients and rotate their palette, keeping things fresh while retaining the core elements of their sound. Thus, Supernature, which has a reputation as a sexy, synthy electro-pop album, also includes “chillout” songs like “Time Out from the World” and “Let It Take You” among ’70s glam-rock inspired anthems like “Ooh La La” and “Satin Chic.” And, similarly, the supposedly folky Seventh Tree brings back hazy, ’70s slow disco glamour on “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” (which also recalls some of Felt Mountain‘s more yodelly numbers) and perky pop on “Happiness” and “Caravan Girl.”
The word on Head First was that it was all stabbing ’80s synths and cheesy Irene Cara impressions. Not so. At the heart of Head First is a real joy, but there’s no mistaking a darker, melancholic vibe that puts one in mind of The Visitors -era ABBA or Sweet Dreams / Touch -era Eurythmics. Particularly at the heart of the album, in the three-song run of “Dreaming,” “Head First,” and “Hunt,” there’s a beautiful sadness that is pure ear candy. Of course, there are stabbing ’80s synths and knowingly cheesy ’80s impressions (you can imagine “Rocket” on a Jane Fonda workout video, complete with legwarmers – in a good way, though), but hearteningly, it all fits. There’s not a split here like there was on Black Cherry; on that album, it sounded at times as if the duo couldn’t decide whether to throw themselves whole-heartedly into the new electro-pop sound or whether to take a more Felt Mountain-esque tack. Here, while “Rocket” and “Hunt” aren’t necessarily similar, you can tell they’re from the same album, and this level of cohesion and consistency has come with the experience of making five LPs.
The album opens with the aforementioned “Rocket,” which sounds almost like it was put in a time capsule circa 1983 and opened for the first time 26 years later. It’s pure ’80s throwback and all the better for it; the chorus is one of Goldfrapp’s simplest and most effective, an arms-in-the-air stadium synth-rocker; Van Halen’s “Jump” is an obvious antecedent, and there’s also a taste of Prince’s synths on Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back” (from 1983’s The Wild Heart). But Alison’s sensual vocals mark it out as the duo’s own, and there is a winning humour in the song (“oh-oh-oh I’ve got a rocket / oh-oh-oh you’re going on it / oh-oh-oh you’re never coming back”) that is a nice change of pace.
Those fat, stabbing synth sounds are pared back on the starker “Believer,” which is one of the record’s hypnotic, insistent highlights, an ostensibly simple, subtle electro-pop number that nevertheless rewards repeated listening for its dense mix and pristine production. “Alive,” meanwhile, is another example of Goldfrapp travelling down a pure pop route; it’s too joyous and simple and direct to have been on the colder and more obviously sexual Supernature, and as such the warmth is completely refreshing and effective. Goldfrapp’s lyrics about pulling on tight jeans are intended, it seems, as a simple, ‘life-is-good’ kind of message, as opposed to the more knowingly sexual delivery it might have garnered on a previous LP. If one were to pinpoint influences for “Alive,” you could look far back at Elton John or ELO, or more recently at Scissor Sisters or Mika (although Goldfrapp’s sophistication puts them above the latter two artists.)
From here, Head First takes on a darker, more expansive hue, as the songs get longer and the arrangements a little more experimental. The gorgeous “Dreaming” is a swirling, appropriately dreamy mid-tempo ballad with some of Alison’s most evocative vocals and one of the album’s most beautiful melodies. The synths have a melancholy early ’80s effect, and there’s a Tusk -era Stevie Nicks quality to the writing; if you can imagine Fleetwood Mac doing a The Visitors -type album in the early ’80s, you might be close to working out what “Dreaming” sounds like. But, as with all of the material, the influences might be there but they don’t encroach; it doesn’t sound like ABBA or Fleetwood Mac necessarily, but there is a similar “vibe.” Likewise, “Head First” is a joyous, lush romantic rush that recalls some of ABBA’s disco-era material (1979’s Voulez-Vous and 1980’s Super Trouper) in its arrangement and the layered multi-track vocal harmonies.
If you listen to Head First in the spirit of its early ’80s influences (ie on vinyl), Side B opens with the ominous “Hunt,” which starts out with a bubbling rhythm that puts you in mind of a ’90s trance remix, but then the portentous drum beats kick in and it settles into a moody mid-tempo gem that recalls Eurythmics in some of its background harmonies, the Blade Runner soundtrack in its noir-ish atmosphere, and even Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd in its synth lines. Alison’s voice here is high and sexy, and the whole song takes on a dark sound that, on the surface, is pretty far removed from the likes of “Rocket,” but is really almost like a slowed-down, moody flipside. In any case, it fits into the Head First ethos.
One song that initially appears a little at odds with the other material is “Shiny and Warm,” the album’s starkest and simplest electro-pop number. Based around a simple, dirty synth line, it’s obviously a cousin to Supernature‘s “Satin Chic” in its tempo, rhythm, and melodic structure, but Alison’s vocal delivery is as lascivious and sexual as it gets here and the glam-rock posture of “Satin Chic” is replaced by c.1982 synth lines. Repeated listening reveals that it’s not the oddity here you may have thought it was. “I Wanna Life,” meanwhile, marries a “Rocket”-style chorus (complete with similar synth stabs) with one of the album’s saddest and most poignant verses, perhaps among Goldfrapp’s loveliest melodies to date. A number of songs display pure pop joy (“Rocket,” “Alive,” “Head First”), but others have that undeniable warmth tempered by melancholy melodies, and “I Wanna Life,” with its wistful verses and ‘up’ choruses, is a prime example of that. Once the Laurie Anderson-meets-Eno experiment of “Voicething” fades away into the ether, 38 minutes of some of the most sophisticated pop music you are likely to hear this year has left you salivating for more: as the best pop albums should.
Let’s make no mistake: some people will find the ’80s synths on “Rocket” and “I Wanna Life,” plus some of the video-game bleeps and bloops on “Alive,” difficult to warm to. Really, those songs are among Goldfrapp’s finest pop songs – simple, direct, joyous (with an underlying tinge of melancholy) – and repeated listening is sure to reveal their magic. Other songs, like “Dreaming” and “Hunt,” immediately announce themselves as Goldfrapp classics. They’re different from what the duo have done before but retain the sophistication and melodic beauty of their best work. Ultimately, Head First is Goldfrapp’s best pop album. Black Cherry and Supernature were unique pop records in their own right, and feature their share of career highlights, and let’s not forget the less-pop but equally-brilliant Felt Mountain and Seventh Tree, but Head First has a cohesion and consistency that is particularly pleasing. Before this record, Felt Mountain stood as Goldfrapp’s most consistent, cohesive record with a clear vision and sound throughout. After five LPs, they have mastered their inherent diversity and variety and channelled it into a direct, fully-formed album of some of the best work of their career. Whether Head First lives up to the commercial success of its predecessors is no matter; artistically, Goldfrapp have hit on a real winner. This album was written and recorded in a sudden spurt of creativity during 2009 and suggests that the duo strike the jackpot when they go with their gut instincts – as they always do, with consummate integrity. It’s exciting to find Goldfrapp at the ten-year, five-LP mark. They are building up quite the legacy. It will be even more exciting to follow wherever they go next.