Tales of Us
44:42 min • Mute • September 9, 2013
John Preston reviews
Over the course of 5 albums, Goldfrapp have always depended on their plush, dreamy, slowed down side. Although they have never had massive single success with this sound, and with public recognition coming instead from their exhibitionist, Schaffel-glam persona, it’s the one thing that is expected and can be depended upon whenever the duo release new material. A new track like the haunting, smoky ‘Ulla’ for example could have also featured on their startling 2002 debut Felt Mountain without sounding out of place. Tales of Us is an album full of these types of songs and arrangements; from start to finish the emphasis is on a quiet, wholly seductive power, with only one track containing something resembling a ‘beat’. Because of this it may scare off a certain type of selective Goldfrapp fan – a brave move on their part, maybe, but they can afford to take a risk when the quality is such that many more who may still have been undecided could now start to take notice.
This is the second time that Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have made what can be lazily referred to as a ‘quiet album’, Felt Mountain being too eclectic and bizarre to truly fall into that category. (Yodelling, anyone?). 2008’s Seventh Tree was a predominately acoustic and gentle collection and, like Tales of Us, it followed an album that was more turntable than coffee table. It had its moments but was overwhelmingly dull, descended into musical pastiche on occasion and was two dimensional both lyrically and musically. It seemed to be pitching for a commercial equivalent of an electro-folk ‘Ooh La La’ and, as may be expected, failed. It did include a couple of more up-tempo synth pop songs (‘Happiness’ and, one of their best songs, ‘A&E’) which interestingly were the singles released during this era but Tales of Us does away which all of that completely and concessions to pop are entirely absent.
10 tracks, all one word titles; and with the exception of one, the brilliant ‘Stranger’ (the other track with a direct sonic reference to Felt Mountain), all are the first names of the person the song is about. ‘Jo’ opens the album in a widescreen, full-bodied manner; strings quiver, a double bass gently throbs with 2 repeated piano notes underscoring Alison Goldfrapp’s gorgeous mumbling, breathy vocal, which suggest ominous circumstances and a circular threat of “run, you’d better run for your life”. With ‘Jo’ it is immediately apparent that Gregory and Goldfrapp have expanded their vision and honed their craft. The songwriting in particular is supremely confident and intricate and has reached the point where instead of lining up their influences for all to hear, Goldfrapp are finally sounding like themselves.
Many of the songs here and the characters that they represent are nocturnal and suggest dread and violence. ‘Laurel’, which is surprisingly and at first shockingly sung in a far lower register than Alison Goldfrapp’s usual impressive soprano, talks about an angry man and a woman with red, red hair and almond eyes. You fear that this union is not a healthy one but no real outcome is suggested; like everything here, it does not concede to the melodramatic. The rhythmic, marching foot stomps of ‘Thea’ refers to tiny knives cutting which describe the sound of the sampled string loop which constantly threatens to rip the track to shreds but never quite does. ‘Annabel’ is simple and soars delicately, based on the book of the same name by Kathleen Winter about an intersex child, not that you could necessarily make that out from the lyrics as Goldfrapp’s words often blend together and form one long, sometimes indecipherable, sentence. This could be a problem with an album which is, albeit loosely, lyrically conceptual but moods are firmly established and in the songs where it is hard to work out what is being said the melody and Alison’s capacity to suggest more than adequately compensate.
‘Drew’ (the first single, with a video full of joyful, naked ghosts) and ‘Clay’ (the best song here) are in some ways the biggest departure for the duo, and two of the most compelling moments. The only two tracks with male titles are big, full songs, technically brilliant and both romantically tragic, incorporating the full orchestra used throughout the album in a very straight forward, traditional way. There could be a fear then that the two are going soft, politely polished with any kind of edge being throughly rubbed away, one of the most appropriate criticisms of Seventh Tree certainly. But a song like ‘Clay’, allegedly about two male soldiers’ secret love affair during the First World War –
We fought them on grey wet sand…
We wanted only to love.
How will I find you again,
Fate or chance?
– is thoroughly bold and vivid yet also incredibly tender and moving. These are emotions rarely experienced whilst listening to their substantial back catalogue; it’s too possessed to ever be considered background.
Maybe the pair have matured, then. Tales of Us is their sixth album, after all. Many (successful) flamboyant and playful musical styles and accompanying images have proceeded it. The album cover shows Alison dressed in black and with head down – she doesn’t want to be seen. This is probably not the case, and I would be surprised if Alison has hung up Studio 54 glitter platforms and cape for good. But it does seem that following their publicly admitted dissatisfaction with their last full length album, the crushingly self-aware Head First, that the irony and sometimes clunky visual tricks have been dispensed with and replaced by something that is altogether more pure. Of course one of the most interesting and exciting things about Goldfrapp is always to see what they will do next and at this point it would be impossible to predict, for the moment though it is a joy to hear them at their most accomplished; sincere and full of soul.