Goldfrapp - Tales of Us
Following 2008's wistful Seventh Tree, an album that returned to the ambient sound of their debut after the glam disco-pop that became their post-'Strict Machine' trademark, Goldfrapp released the solid but unfulfilling Head First in 2010. That album had nothing particularly wrong with it, but felt like treading water after the sumptuous surprises of Seventh Tree. Whatever you think of brand new album Tales of Us with its evocative soundscapes and character tracklist, you can't accuse Alison and Will of playing safe. After bedding down with its steadily unfolding little miracles, you might even assert that it's the duo's best album yet.
There is no 'Ooh La La' moment here. 'Thea' has a shuddering beat that drops in, but it's a song that stalks you through the dark rather than seducing you. Tales of Us is an album of nocturnes, and all but trades electronica for rich arrangements powered by a buoyant string section, by turns luxurious and foreboding. It could be argued that this is the true spiritual successor to Felt Mountain and that the cool-Kylie shininess of the Supernature era was always building to an opus like this.
Despite the orchestration, Goldfrapp's music has never felt so intimately focused on Alison's voice and her poetry. Yes, the strings are exquisite but this feels like a stripped-back affair, many songs like 'Annabel' starting with Alison intoning over plucked guitar. With the disco in the dark this time, the lyrics are (as on Seventh Tree) inspired by nature and folklore, and - in attributing a name as the title of each song - people. The lyrics can feel opaque at times, with one nameless song 'Stranger' witnessing Alison confused whether the subject is "boy or girl", but the fact that her voice has never sounded so confident and dynamic before means that a line such as 'Alvar's repeated hook "I've never seen the winter lights on the lake" is lent a sensual gravitas that makes it compelling, no matter how obtuse.
Compelling through and through, this is an album to savour in several sittings as it may not all click at once. Different nuances will become apparent as you delve, from the deeper register Alison sings in on noir piano ballad 'Laurel' or the discordant tension felt on 'Drew'. Its singular pace will be frustrating to some, but devout fans will find secrets worth uncovering. Give these tales time to settle, and you may find you don't even miss the glitterball glamorama of Goldfrapp gone by.