Goldfrapp – ‘Head First’
Can Goldfrapp’s fifth album, ‘Head First’, live up to its predecessor, ‘Seventh Tree’?
by Chris McDermott
Goldfrapp’s latest album ‘Head First’ was always going to be measured against the high-water mark that they set with their previous album. ‘Seventh Tree’ was a spell-binding mix of dark sonnets for the disaffected dilettante which was going to be difficult to follow. That album had very few single candidates amongst its astonishingly accomplished segue of orchestral melodies. In comparison to the ethereal, enchanting and enthralling ‘Seventh Tree’, its successor was always going to need to wrong-foot the audience in some way. Somehow they have managed to do this, by creating an album almost exclusively of single material. Only one or two tracks on the album might be classified in any way as ‘edgy’, and even then one would have to use the yardstick of the US Billboard Charts to make that seem a reasonable statement.
This is such a long ride away from the devilish twists of their inspirational ‘Black Cherry’ album, where ‘Strict Machine’ and ‘Train’ set the scene and tone. On this album, their fifth, the tone is set by the first two tracks ‘Rocket’ and ‘Believer’. By now Goldfrapp fans recognise those four/four drum machines blended with co-operative synth bass and top lines. Whilst ‘Supernature’ re-invented glam rock for the new kids, ‘Head First’ re-calculates the dance themes of the 1980s for those who missed them, or who hanker for their return.
No, this is no dark destroyer of minds, no calculated casualty case, no new direction. Instead, ‘Head First’ puts the money first, and heads straight for a boost to the bank balance and the pension contributions of Alison Goldfrapp and her cohort Will Gregory. With the inevitability that is the modern music business many of the tracks on this album are heading straight to the ‘Best Of’ that someone somewhere in a darkened catalogue room is already compiling.
Do the tracks on this album deserve to be included on such a prestigious play list as that? Here are some comments on each track to help you decide for yourself.
The first single to be released, but undoubtedly far from the last. It seems like a safe bet to say that you’ll be hearing Goldfrapp singles all year long in 2010. After all, it would be a shame to spurn so many ready-made opportunities as are presented on this album.
‘Rocket’ contains the straight-out right hook of ‘I’ve got a rocket. You’re going on it. You’re never coming back’, punctuated by ‘oh oh oh’s to underline the pop-worthiness of the hook. Feistiness from the demur pop starlet? She punches it out, but doesn’t really go on to back the slogan up with any clever recriminations.
Within moments we’re right back in the chorus again. One of the features of the songwriting for this album is the classic pop structure of many of the tracks. Listen out for the ‘Verse – Verse with build – Chorus’ motif throughout. The Hit Factory could have designed these tracks, but there is no doubting their efficacy for delivering memorable refrains. Memorable, but not moving – that is a motif that also permeates the album and that’s less forgivable and more forgettable in the long term.
I was a believer. I believed that when they had said after the launch of their 2005 album ‘Supernature’ that they intended to create dance music: that they were on a mission. I’m not sure they knew which planet they were heading for, plotting a course via Donna Summer, New Order and now veering off towards the outlying spheres of the electronic music story. But mission accomplished in some sense! The music has docked successfully, interfacing with DX7 and Juno 6 synths, RS232 cables sprouting like the wavy locks of Alison’s ribbon-cabled hair.
If this isn’t homage to Billy Joel’s ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll To Me’ then she’s got some explaining to do! If you can imagine that spliced with an Abba track from the Supertrouper album then you’ve pretty much unravelled the DNA of this musical offering. As they say in the world of MP3 shuffles – ‘it’s a skipper’.
Apparently she’s ‘feeling alive again’, which might account for the shallowness of the lyrics and the twee similes that she employs during the course of trying to describe this elated feeling. I think I preferred her when she was slightly more morose.
Another of the tracks that you feel you already know from somewhere but can’t extract all of the influences without recourse to painful childhood memories of Top of the Pops appearances by miming synth-pop bands who were so highly-strung that their hair shaped itself into those sharp quiffs. Was that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, or Japan? Well, it’s more exotic and orchestral than either of those, so it must be new, right?
Not for the first time on this album there are nods to the recent success of Bat For Lashes, with atypical percussive slaps and intercessional strings – although of course there would be strenuous denials from all parties on that score.
5. ‘Head First’
The title track marks a real break in the album. It separates the pure dance tracks that have assailed our ears since the first chords kicked off, and it provides a light break before things take a turn towards the deeper end of the pool.
I say ‘light ‘ break because the theme of the track is light itself, with its Radio2 -friendly tone, cringeworthy synth lines, and infinite repetition of the word ‘light’ to unsubtly emphasise the point.
The track acts like an interlude between acts in a play where the audience gets the opportunity to go get an ice cream whilst some background muzak is piped through. I highly recommend that course of action at this point. The track is a palliative, a digestif, a wafer thin mint between courses. Another ‘skipper’.
Back to the duck, bump and pump. Hoorah! ‘Hunt’ takes the feel from a Bat For Lashes track but refuses to do anything more with it. Not that this is a bad thing because ‘Hunt’ is one of the rare highlights of the album, for sure! All the classic elements are here – the symbolism of the hunt, the breathless vocals, the heartbeat pump of the kick and bass.
The fantastic production applied to this track makes you appreciate how lush and lithe Miss Goldfrapp can be with her vocal technique. As copying styles goes this is exemplary, but also a bit cheeky.
7. ‘Shiny & Warm’
On each Goldfrapp album there is at least one single ‘for the boys’. It’s a single where Alison gets the chance to wrap her little legs around the pole in your living room and writhe around for a few minutes exuding the kind of animal energy that will have every male listener shifting position. Add to that some coy soppy-faced vocal stylings and we have a (ahem) ‘full package’, shall I say?
‘Shiny and Warm’? Add ‘soft’ and ‘yielding’ and you’re all the way there with this track. It’s nothing but a tight titillation of the male libido, and has little musical subtlety, with its garishly simple synths and punchy un-modifying course.
8. ‘I Wanna Life’
It’s the return of Flashdance! Leggings akimbo we are regressed to the 1980s where Stock, Aitken and Waterman are very much controlling the structure of the songs that sell, and it’s a real shame that Goldfrapp felt they ought to pompify this little ditty with that kind of crass simplicity.
Another obvious single. ‘Obvious’ being the operative word.
The one asset that Goldfrapp have ‘in the bank’ as it were (oh dear, did I use that allusion already?) is Alison’s voice. Quite rightly it is the dominant feature of the GF style, and this track is almost entirely a showcase for the electronic manipulation of her vocal talents. Repeat beats are fashioned from snippets of her feline fricative phrasings.
If there is anything that could be described as an ‘oddity’ on the album then this is it.
‘Head First’ is ultimately unfulfilling, despite its optimistic and simplistic pleasure-seeking motifs. Whilst ‘Supernature’ was mainly flaccid beats wrapped in a super-tight production, ‘Head First’ is much simpler and tighter, but the lack of human flaws and the self-assuredness of its salesmanship make a natural man recoil. It is not creative enough to compete with its immediate predecessor, even if it does stand assuredly alongside ‘Supernature’.
The title track is usually a good place to start when considering a ‘theme’ for an album. ‘Head First’ has some revealing lyrics in the title track – the refrain ‘Head First in light; my world in light’. Yes, light is the theme here – keep the tracks light, up-beat, simple, formulaic, catchy, instantly recognisable.
I think it’s unfair to compare ‘Head First’ with ‘Seventh Tree’. The latter was an outstanding and unique case of genius emerging from pure creative flow. ‘Head First’ is more like a natural successor to ‘Supernature’. In one sense we have progressed – the beats are tighter, the percussion cheekier, the synths are from the 80s, not the 70s. Progress indeed. If you can last until the second half of the album without spinning it out of the window then your patience is somewhat rewarded with glimpses of how Goldfrapp’s eternal quirkiness must inevitably emerge, despite the cheap pop gloss that will inevitably become the marketed face of this album.
Despite the many mirrors that they seem to hold up to themselves these days, reflecting the styles and sensibilities that they aspire to, there’s still something to admire about Goldfrapp when they choose to reveal it. Isn’t it about time we admired Goldfrapp for who they truly are? ‘Head First’ is their most reflective album yet – in the sense that they are reflecting the styles and sounds of other artists – and thus we lose sight of the real Goldfrapp for another few years. I’m a believer in Goldfrapp, but they don’t half push it to the limits!