[18 September 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
While Alison Goldfrapp comes closer and closer to becoming a legitimate pop star in the UK and Europe, two and a half years ago, we didn’t expect her transformation from a demurely clad trip-hop siren to a patent leather wearing sexpot at all. One moment, she’s pictured in Felt Mountain wearing a gigantic pair of wellies, singing about pilots watching stars and looking rather reserved in concert; the next, she’s showing off her legs on the inner sleeve of Black Cherry, singing about her knicker lace, and dancing so suggestively onstage with a mini theremin, that had he been alive to see it, Léon Théremin would have sold his invention as a marital aid, not a musical instrument. It was an astonishing transformation by the chameleonic Ms. Goldfrapp, the more we saw her perform on television and in concert, the more her popularity grew, the more the lady seemed to emerge from her shell. By the time her single “Strict Machine” broke in 2004, Goldfrapp seemed ready for the big time, and at the rate she was going, there was no way she’d squander the opportunity.
So it should be no surprise that there are no surprises on the new Goldfrapp album, as it sticks with the same formula as Black Cherry, only slightly simplified, with a few minor variations here and there. Although Supernature lacks the imagination of Felt Mountain and the saucy brilliance of Black Cherry, it doesn’t pander to the pop crowd. In fact, the highly creative duo of Goldfrapp and Will Gregory (we tend to forget Goldfrapp are a band, and not a solo artist) ingeniously sidestep simple categorization. While there are hooks aplenty and loads of contagious dance beats, the enigmatic quality that made fans fall in love with the music four years ago is still present, albeit in a more accessible package.
Goldfrapp have always displayed a fascination with vintage pop sounds, from ‘80s synth pop (“UK Girls” incorporated Olivia Newton John’s “Physical”) to classic European disco (the icy cover of Baccara’s “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”), but it was glam that dominated Black Cherry, as the singles “Train” and “Strict Machine” (especially the “We Are Glitter” mix of the latter) borrowed heavily from the then-burgeoning electronic “schaffel” trend in Germany, which in turn was heavily indebted to such seminal ‘70s glam rock tunes as T. Rex’s “Hot Love”. On the new album, Goldfrapp are clearly in if-it-ain’t broke mode, as the opening track (and lead single) “Ooh La La” closely follows “Strict Machine”‘s lead, with its bouncing synth line, the shuffling 2/4 beat, and cascading synths near the end. However, that gimmick remains something they do incredibly well, and when the chorus kicks in, Alison lala-ing away, it’s impossible not to give in. The song sets the tone for the entire album; like she says, she don’t want Beaudelaire, just glitter lust, and the record literally sparkles with it (wait… are those glitter phalluses on the CD booklet?).
While Black Cherry seemed to serve up ace after ace, Supernature is less direct, eschewing big choruses in favor of much more subtle hooks. An obvious nod to T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan”, “Ride a White Horse” sounds destined for club hit status; a blend of insistent dance beats and an ethereal chorus, Goldfrapp shifts from a cold, husky croon to more euphoric tones, to the kind of vocal acrobatics that will elicit comparisons to Kate Bush. The electro-tinged “Fly Me Away” audaciously veers into Ladytron territory, but suddenly bursts into a gently lilting chorus, as Goldfrapp displays the kind of vocal skill that sets her apart from her peers. The buoyant “Satin Chic” is carried by fun little piano fills, reminiscent of early Elton John, while the Numanesque “Number 1” proves to be the real charmer on the disc, Goldfrapp sounding absolutely beguiling, equally lovestruck (“You’re my favorite moment/ You’re my Saturday”) and voracious (“I’m like a dog to get you”), while Gregory provides a gorgeous, Human League style backdrop.
Goldfrapp and Gregory are smart enough not to let their poppier moments overshadow the rest of the record, balancing the upbeat tracks on Supernature with plenty of more laid-back compositions. The sultry “You Never Know” and the tender “Let it Take You” both achieve an impressive balance between Felt Mountain‘s classy trip hop and Black Cherry‘s synth-oriented leanings, but it’s on “Koko” where they show the most growth, blending a small hint of sitar underneath the grandiose synth chords with Goldfrapp’s most understated vocal work on the album.
“Lovely 2 C U” is the one track on the album that sounds a bit too tame for its own good, but as this album proves, even when Goldfrapp pay it safe, the music is still more daring and ultimately rewarding than much of the best saccharine pop coming out of the UK these days, Gregory’s production lending a more sophisticated air, as opposed to Richard X’s more ostentatious pop genius. If Rachel Stevens is bubblegum, Goldfrapp are crème brulee, and Supernature deserves to be savored.