The synthesizer is a beautiful thing. Not constrained by the the limitations of natural sources for vibration, it can give an almost endless expression to that which the composer should wish to express. A beautiful female voice should be the catalyst for an entire universe of emotion, inspiration, observation; the whole of the human condition, in fact.
Allison Goldfrapp and her partner Will Gregory have in four albums touched upon the potential of both of these instruments. Each outing has been with a healthy, reverential tip of their hats to the synth-pop of the ’80s. With their latest album Head First, however, one cannot help but wonder if the duo is simply locked in an era in which they do not want to be. If they are satisfied (one might say imprisoned) in this way of thinking, all the power to them, for they have then made an album which should at least satisfy them. For listeners old and new, however, the album is akin to a valley girl rescued from cryogenic immersion.
To conclude from this that the album is poor or not worth buying, would be untrue. The songs have the catchy sensibilities of the pop hook which have festooned their previous efforts to various degrees. The opening track, “Rocket”, encapsulates this dilemma. Hopelessly derivative of a Journey power ballad, one nevertheless cannot help but be entranced by Allison’s seductive voice sending her lover on a rocket to a destination from which he cannot return. He may wish to drop Major Tom a line whilst out there.
It is difficult, even after repeated listenings to find something that breaks out of the formula. The only truly embarrassing moment on the album is the title track. Imagine a catfight in Studio 54 circa 1982 between Anni-Frid Lyngstad of Abba, Donna Summer, and the Oberheim Eddie Van Halen abused on 1984 and one has a sense of the nightmarish smorgasbord of the track. Close behind is the “I Wanna Life”, a desire this reviewer could only find fulfilled by shutting off the song. It is true to the ’80s sensibilities of the whole album, to be sure. The repeating chord progression through the verse and chorus is a black hole in song craft. When hidden with clever arrangements, it can actually be an engine of great excitement. In the case of this doggerel with nothing to mask its banality, it’s more comparable to matter and light sucked into oblivion.
Where Goldfrapp has traditionally been at its best, on the other hand, is in Ms. Goldfrapp’s sultry invocations in the midst of an atmosphere not out of place in Gary Numan’s neck of the woods. “Shiny and Warm” marries these qualities with the same infectious seduction found previously with the duo. “Hunt” evokes a brooding quality or Berlin and attempts to add contour and colour with the sampled breaths emphasizing the title word. Unfortunately, the song has in itself not nearly the necessary hypnotic qualities to keep the concept, the lyric or the melody from sitting, rather stagnantly for four and-a-half minutes. The final track “Voicething” is a cautionary tale of what happens when synthesis, digital recording, and vocals liberate themselves completely from interest or entertainment.
With an album cover which reflects with knowing irony the era Goldfrapp is pursuing, the overall effect is one of hope: namely, that Allison and Will recorded this project with a wry grin and knowing wink.