[16 February 2012]
It was definitely The Voice. Yes it was definitely the voice that lured me to the shores of that strange, Brave New World named Goldfrapp. It wasn’t the Space Disco Stallion born from a million shattered mirrors, the Vampiric cherubs or the dancing tree people. It wasn’t the folklore of Ms Goldfrapp yodelling whilst milking a cow for some clandestine art happening, or the bizarre early Oompah leanings. Nor was it the salivating, wolf-human hybrids that adorned their record sleeves or the “I dont think you’re supposed to do that with a theremin wand” stage shenanigans. No, as devilishly entertaining as all those things were – and hot damn, they were – it was that remarkable voice which rang out like some siren calling, “Something wicked this way comes!” That hypnotic, haunting whistle announcing the dawn of “Lovely Head”. Three minutes of slow-burn smouldering before exploding into what is effectively, “An operatic supernova.” Listening back now, a decade-plus later, it still has the firepower to blow minds and elicit a transcendental “What the hell was THAT?” moment… but that was just the beginning.
Crawling from the embers of the cooler-that-cool UK ‘trip-hop’ scene of the early ‘90s, the owner of aforementioned vocal gymnasium, Alison Goldfrapp, swiftly decided stoner dub miserablism was no way to conquer Planet Pop. So, alongside beardy-boffin and elusive enigma Will Gregory, she packed her bindle with sandwiches and skipped off down the yellow brick road in search of lycanthropy and musical alchemy. Together they christened themselves “GOLDFRAPP”—possibly because “GREGORY” had already been taken. 2000’s Mercury-nominated début Felt Mountain dreamt rich and strange—John Barry via Aldous Huxley and the brothers’ Grimm. A Mecca behind the trees where deer, dogs, stars and Frankenstein’s monster roamed free. Sadly, just two of its offspring make the Singles Ark; the atomic starburst that was “Lovely Head” and the graceful, but colossal “Utopia”, the perfect Bond theme… for the 25th century. “I’m wired to the world / That’s how I know everything,” purrs Ali G, possibly from a hollowed-out volcano whilst stroking a white kitty prior to unleashing a full-on maniacal laugh.
Spurred on by the garlands awarded their firstborn, the ‘frapp went all out with 2003’s Black Cherry. Heralded by the filthy, glitter-stomp, chainsaws of “Train”—which arrived resplendent with frisky Immodesty Blaize-starring burlesque promo—it felt like the circus rolling into town. Roll up! Out come the freaks! Night and day different from Felt Mountain; this was bigger, feistier, shinier, more electronic and more perversely subversive but still typically whipsmart. The mix of Eyes Wide Shut meets Cabaret artwork and cryptic lyricism about “Hairy Trees”, “Wolf ladies”, “Nasal douche” and “Don’t buy me candyfloss or Bears / Swarfega fingers / I want you there” positioned the duo as one of pop’s most unpredictably creative, eccentric and exciting bands. Add the increasingly legendary live performances and inspired remixes for the likes of Marilyn Manson and Depeche Mode and it’s no wonder the cheeky press were now calling Madonna “Oldfrapp”. Alongside the whipcrackin’ “Train”, the beautifully bruised title-track pushed out a life-raft to Felt Mountain castaways whilst the Doctor Who-theme-on-Ketamine “Strict Machine” mopped up the pop charts not once, but twice.
At the height of their commercial success came 2005’s Supernature, with its title, tellingly, doffing a tip o’ the tophat to Cerrone’s electro classic. This was futurist pop alright but in the lineage of Bowie and Bolan. Steppin’ and stridin’ like a freak unique through a glorious wonderland of their own invention beneath which the stars somehow aligned and—shazam!—No1, Toppermost of the Poppermost. The all-conquering “Ooh La La” rebooted early ‘70s glam and proved their biggest hit to date whilst the almost prophetic “Number One” sent valentines and doey-eyed daydreams to the early ‘80s new romantic scene. Singles is naturally preloaded with both for the ‘Big Sell’. The euphoric, Studio 54 salute “Ride A White Horse” gallops by later, still racing like a hot-blooded thoroughbred. Its Donna Summer ecstatic outro, “Oh I love this feeling / Feels like forever” is a pure headrush.
It’s to Goldfrapp’s eternal credit then—and to their bank manager’s chagrin—that rather than toss off another set of by-numbers “Claws ‘n’ Mirrorballs” bangers they chose instead to return with the intimate, pastoral and (gulp) folky Seventh Tree. It’s their most beautiful, timeless and—scary word alert!—mature album. It’s also, despite the slip in sales as the Disco Blitz Kidz shrugged their shoulders and skipped town, their best album. First single “A&E” went top ten and still sounds the healing rise of a new dawn after a night on the frontline. All gentle music-box charm and delicate, baby steps optimism. The dandiest moment on Tree, “Happiness”, shines here too, a bouncing flower child of the ‘67 ‘Human Be-In’ tilting toward the embracing sun.
2010’s Head First brought the beat back but found Goldfrapp breaking the Imperial spell in the process. After four bewitching and consistently entertaining transformations this proved their least phantasmagoric. It caught the ‘frapp peeking into the rearview mirror for the first time and felt, well, a little ordinary. The two singles found here—the Laura Branigan does Van Halen’s “Jump” neon ‘n’ pastels of “Rocket” and the Olivia Newton-John glider “Believer”—are fine pop but lack the mercurial magic ‘n’ mystery of prime Goldfrapp. Singles two new cuts however prove the future may yet be saved. The afterglow of “Yellow Halo” soothes seductively but it’s the symphonic, Shirley Bassey finale “Melancholy Sky” which shines the brightest and brings down the curtain to rapturous applause.
Over the course of five albums, Goldfrapp have proved themselves one of the most imaginative, artistic and entertaining bands of this new century. If that’s news to you Singles extends one furry paw and offers an intriguing introduction to one of Britain’s premier pop art bands. However, if you’re already a fan you’re forgiven for feeling mildly underfed. There’s a nagging sense of missed opportunity here. Some great singles are inexplicably absent (The carnival-esque “Twist”, “Fly Me Away”, “Caravan Girl”, “Pilots”) and a bonus disc of rarities or their dazzling promos would’ve better celebrated Goldfrapp’s illustrious history to the gold standard in which they’ve always excelled. For fans then hold tight the infinitely superior first quartet of albums, for everyone else allow Singles to paint an unforgettable underworld of Disney, Disco and the Company of Wolves. Let yourself be led astray, head for the woods and follow that voice. Definitely, The Voice.