The veil has been lifted. Details concerning Goldfrapp‘s haunting, noirish sixth album Tales of Us were sparse at first. A promotional trailer was released in June, but it had quietly flown past the radar until a stunning black and white video appeared in late summer for “Drew”, the record’s exquisite first single. I hadn’t been aware Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory were even intending to deliver a record this year, and I was uncertain as to what sound they would be presenting this time around. As their second album Black Cherry proved, Goldfrapp are capable of blindsiding the expectations of critics and fans alike.
Each effort has seen the talented duo don another mask, another guise, while evolving, experimenting, and dabbling in different genres. Every incarnation has been executed with consummate artistry, but there was always something uniquely special about the initial sound they presented on their debut album Felt Mountain. For those fans who jumped on board during the Black Cherry or Supernature years, I can honestly say that disappointment will be inevitable once the final song has ended on Tales of Us. Aside from the stomping beat of “Thea”, Goldfrapp have completely stepped off the dance floor this time around.
Recorded at their English countryside studio and mixed in London in the two years after their last tour had come to a close, Tales of Us completely eschews the pulsing ‘80s, electro-pop glamour of 2010’s Head First. As if their dance albums never existed, the new record resides in a place between Felt Mountain and their 2008 critically acclaimed ode to paganism and English children’s books, Seventh Tree. Following the documented dissatisfaction with the rushed, uninspired Giorgio Moroder meets Olivia Newton-John-like flair of their previous album, Goldfrapp have returned to their roots and the result is both intimate and immensely rewarding.
The album features 10 tracks, nine of which are given names such as “Jo” and “Ulla”, character sketches representing individuals both real or fictional. The eighth track is simply entitled “Stranger”. Unlike past Goldfrapp releases, their newest collection of songs isn’t an album of obvious singles, and isn’t aiming for charts to climb. There is no singular, cohesive narrative or small musical motif that binds everything together. Instead, the duo have created little snapshots and portraits that are connected through similar sonic textures with guitars, soaring strings, delicate piano and the occasional synth flourish.
First single “Drew” is one of the most breathtaking songs the British duo has ever recorded. The aural equivalent of a sensual perfume ad, it’s one of their most mature compositions in many a year and a clear highlight of the album. The accompanying video, directed by Alison’s partner, film editor Lisa Gunning, is one in a series of five videos that will be gathered into a short film and released in cinemas this Autumn. Another one of the songs chosen by Gunning and Goldfrapp for the film, was “Jo”, a ballad told from a murderer’s point of view as they stalk and kill a woman named Jo “where the wind sings by the river.” Mining similar territory to Nick Cave’s “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, the murder weapon is a bit more fearsome than a rock in this tale. The visual companion purportedly includes Alison running around a forest wielding a sharp ax, singing, “run, you’d better run, you’d better run for your life.”
“Simone” recounts a tale of infidelity, as a woman discovers that her lover has been sleeping with her daughter. Similarly, “Thea”, the only truly upbeat, electro-pulsing song on the album, describes a woman who aims to get rid of the mistress who is having an affair with her husband. With its marching beat and outro of galloping horses in the distance, it’s the only song on the album that I could imagine being a potential prospect for a remix.
“Annabel”, is based on author Kathleen Winter’s Annabel: A Novel,a song about the psychological plight of a hermaphrodite whose female genitalia was sewn shut as an infant. As the character goes through puberty, they discover their condition and are faced with an identity crisis. The narrator observes their struggle and wonders why society couldn’t let them be both genders.
“Clay”, the final song of the set, is as honest and heartbreaking as anything the duo has ever recorded. It’s a love letter written from one WWII soldier to another, knowing that they will most likely never set eyes upon one another again. “You have deep sea eyes, ancient stars. We wanted only to love. How will I find you again? Fate or chance? Our beauty in uncertainty, we fall down on gray white sand. The shadows we free, memories. We want only to live, only to love and breathe again.”
With songs unencumbered by cluttered arrangements, these tales truly breathe, so it’s a shame Alison has chosen not to articulate her words throughout most of the songs on the album. Often her delivery is so muddled, as to completely obfuscate the meaning of a phrase or sentence. Past recordings highlighted this stylistic choice and while I realize she’s purposely creating distinct moods for each song through expression, it sacrifices the narrative for the listener. Being an ardent lover of poetry and stories, I found Tales of Us to be lyrically frustrating, not for the actual content, but mainly because it was difficult to decipher the words she was singing throughout. Once I was able to clear away the fog, the record suddenly came alive. Diction aside, Alison has rarely sounded this captivating and the album contains some of the loveliest vocal performances she’s recorded thus far.
Goldfrapp have seemingly rekindled their creative fires and the result is a challenging and devastatingly beautiful record. Where the duo will take us next, I’m uncertain, but if it’s as seductively bewitching as Tales of Us, I will continue to follow them along on their journey. These are tales of murder, identity crisis, loss, unfaithfulness, and the wars we rage both internally and externally. Tales to return to again and again.