Goldfrapp - Manchester Albert Hall
“The new songs sound like FM and ST.” Ah, listen to the hardcore exhale a deep, communal relief. Alison Goldfrapp took to Twitter just last month to offer her followers upfront reassurance. The cyber disco travails of recent years had been variously rewarding: the rich, outré beats of mega-seller Supernature versus the merely diverting Head First (openly synthetic, ultimately a minor thrill.) Hindsight is an audacious bugger at best but it tends to know its way around a back catalogue. The received wisdom that Felt Mountain, their tricksy, looping debut and Seventh Tree, 2006’s unexpectedly ambitious detour down a side road of sensual cyber folk, remain their most defiantly Goldfrapp-ian works, has more than a little foundation. So, Alison and Will Gregory, joyfully perverse and almost wilfully insular, shut out the world and go back to basics. Only, Goldfrapp’s basics were never that basic to begin with.
So, here’s to a second coming as exultant as it is surprising, and stage-managed with artful precision. For the live premiere of new album Tales of Us (released 9th September), Goldfrapp avoid the obvious ruses, and rather than striking out with a few de rigueur low key club gigs, they pitch up in the spotlight, opting for two nights at Manchester’s historic Albert Hall (as part of the annual Manchester International Festival), a former Wesleyan chapel currently being lovingly brought back to life by the local Trof group, owners of the well-loved Deaf Institute. It’s a breath-taking work in progress, all lead windows, stone stairwells, ornate carving and enough original brick work and tiling to give Kevin McCloud a coronary. Factor in a genuinely engaged audience (4000 tickets sold in a heartbeat) and we’re slipping into ‘shoulda been there’ territory. That audience is key tonight. Were they this boisterous and adoring on, say, the most recent ‘Head First’ tour at the scuzzy Academy down the road? No, not really. Well, not at all. But on the hottest day of the year, Manchester does barmy as well as it does balmy, huge, roaring ovations for everything. Mostly, the band just stops, exchanging glances, baffled, thrilled, missing cues, Alison offering thanks but struggling to get a word in. That’s just for the new stuff. The stuff that no-one’s even heard.
‘Shoulda been there’ seems almost not to cover it. With fulsome backing from the RNCM String Orchestra, perched beneath the huge original church organ, Goldfrapp play through Tales of Us in full, from start to finish. From the soft bob and weave of opener ‘Jo’ through to the staggering ‘Clay’ (“This is a song about two soldiers in WWII who fell in love…”), Alison finds space within the songs, meets the five piece band somewhere out there and the unfamiliar quickly becomes heavily familiar. With its release still two months away, you paw at the calendar like a child, desperate for the label to pull it forward. Or, more realistic by far, you try to cause time to fold in on itself through sheer force of will.
Like much of their repertoire, Goldfrapp's new songs are defined partly by flitting little half melodies that eddy and swirl, and step lightly around string-driven hooks. Every flourish, every unexpected burst of volume, those tender spaces in the song where it seems little is actually happening until it sparks almost effortlessly with colour and light, registers at depth. For once, taking notes seems like a good idea but they offer little, in retrospect. The “quiet piano one” is probably ‘Stranger’. “VERY John Barry!!!”? Mmm. That could be ‘Thea’. ‘Drew’, with its soaring strings, and pounding crescendo was trailed online last week and it grows and grows. ‘Alvar’, “inspired by a trip to Iceland”, dispenses with the strings and swaps double bass and acoustic guitar for full electric. As album closer ‘Clay’ builds to its shuddering climax, the hall roars deafening approval. Even in its former guise, it’s unlikely this foreboding hall ever saw a congregation quite so fervent. Alison punches the air with both hands: “And that’s our new album!” You find yourself breathing deep, gulping like a fool. You note - one more time and then we'll move on - that the serviceable pop sheen of Head First was hardly going to provoke a response like this. From either side of the stage.
So that's their new album. A quick lie down (me, not them) and they're back. Rest assured, what comes next is as dizzying, edifying and draining as a trip to the moon, as Goldfrapp return with not only the RNCM choir but the never-ever-seen-on-stage-geeky-quiet-genius half of the band, Will Gregory. Gregory sits some archaic piece of analogue kit on his lap and he helps the collective despatch eight or nine indefatigable diamonds from, crucially, Felt Mountain and Seventh Tree alone. And still it’s half a notch below the black magic fascination of the first half. Regardless, it’s a smartly complementary selection and the Manc fanbase finds a little bit more bonkers, northern uproar for the likes of ‘Clowns’ and ‘Lovely Head’, the latter electrified like 'Night on Bare Mountain' but without the, erm, understatement. ‘A&E’ spins its filigree of melody, ‘folk’ of a sort but as re-imagined in a wholly different galaxy. ‘Road to Somewhere’ is breezy yet stately, unspeakably lovely. Someone shouts ‘Eat Yourself Whole’. “Is that a song request, or..?” asks Alison. A closing, ramshackle ‘Caravan Girl’ sets the place shaking, puts the whole Albert Hall restoration project in jeopardy.
New vs old. Hmm. Come on. This was a half time victory like you’ve never seen. Six albums in, and an act you gravitated towards for their unique take on an often abused form, then stuck with for their devilish re-invention, offers up yet another twist. Older now and less brazen, but still somehow beautifully decadent, Goldfrapp display a winning sophistication; their new, classicist take on what they call pop fits them like a glove. It still sounds alien, ineffably weird, oddball as only the truly free dare. It still plays hard and fast with that unsettling middle ground between pop and, well, the dark. It still, rest assured, sounds like nothing other than this freaky little duo whose roving hit-and-miss, genre-vaulting ambition appears to know few bounds. Praise be. Downtempo, downtown but a million light years from downbeat, Goldfrapp's latest incarnation is...well, it's tempting to say classic Goldfrapp. But, of course, those casual transformations over time mean that, really, there's no such thing. Never has been and, you suspect, there never will be.