Silver Eye comes close to being an absolute triumph, thanks in large part to the extraordinary sonic boom that the production packs.
Four years have passed since the last Goldfrapp album, yet somehow it seems even longer. A new Goldfrapp release is always a highly anticipated, and unpredictable, musical event. The duo generally stays within the lines of melodic electropop with Alison Goldfrapp’s coolly detached and sexy vocals front and center, but they are certainly not afraid to change it up from album to album. Silver Eye has a harder electronic edge to it than anything they’ve done since 2005’s Supernature, while still making room for their meditative side. The melodies are there, and the vocals are as fresh and expressive as ever, but there are an intensity and seriousness to the album that’s deeply compelling. It’s markedly different than its predecessor Tales of Us, a downbeat album of melancholy beauty.
Silver Eye amps up the energy significantly on certain tracks, while others delve into slow-burning and darkly cinematic grandeur, a desperate quest through the labyrinthine depths of a distant and imposing frozen planet somewhere in a forgotten corner of the universe. To put it mildly, Silver Eye is not a party album. There are tracks that provide the necessary wattage to keep the dance floor pulsing -- very few bands sound as good as Goldfrapp does blasting through massive club speakers, and Silver Eye offers a few tracks straight from a DJ’s wet dream. Overall, though, Silver Eye is a complex and utterly beguiling collection that mostly sways in the icy shadows, ominous and untamed.
There’s nothing on Silver Eye as immediate and commercial as the dreamy synthpop gem “Rocket” or the aggressive electronic strut “Ooh La La”, but the duo hasn’t lost its gift for delivering strong melodic hooks. Goldfrapp hasn’t been burning up the singles charts in recent years, and that is unlikely to change with their new album. The opener and first single, “Anymore”, is the closest thing to a radio-friendly track on the record. While its stripped-down and hypnotic feel is appealing, it doesn’t quite live up to their big electronic anthems of the past. Still, it’s a solid tune and will surely keep the dancefloor buzzing, especially late at night when everyone is already lost in the intoxicating energy of the beats, the entranced crowd around them, and whatever liquids or chemicals happen to be percolating through their bloodstreams.
“Systemagic” has an eerie new wave vibe, with echoey layered vocals that are detached to the point of almost being robotic. The retro synth parts beam like lasers from some seedy underground club circa 1983. “Tigerman” harkens back to the duo’s chilly mellow side, offering an air of mystery and dread. The lyrics are enigmatic and stark, the imagery haunting. So far so good, but the next segment contains the strongest tracks on the album.
“Become the One” is one of the standout cuts, and it sounds the least like “traditional” Goldfrapp. It’s a malefic electro head-trip with layers of half-whispered vocals over a spooky futuristic soundscape. It’s a daring track, not exactly single material, but the kind of song that will inspire repeat plays to really let it dig in because it’s so fabulously strange. “Become the One” is darkly cinematic, music for a violent noir crime thriller set in some future alien dystopia. Or maybe not so far in the future, the way things are going. It’s a superb and surprising piece of work and continues the shadowy trajectory that Silver Eye follows. This is a long way from the fizzy buoyant upbeat pop of 2010’s Head First, and that’s not a bad thing. Sure, Head First is a great album, but credit Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory for their willingness to venture into uncharted territory somewhere way behind what human telescopes can see.
The duo collaborates with co-producer Bobby Krilc (who works under the name the Haxan Cloak), who worked with Björk on Vulnicura and has released acclaimed albums on his own. Krilc’s trademark is darkly atmospheric electronica, and his fingerprints are all over Silver Eye. Particularly evocative of his sound is the foreboding mood he helps create in “Faux Suede Drifter”, a song that practically begs to be on the soundtrack to a particularly creepy David Lynch movie. Over ghostly synths, Alison Goldfrapp’s voice floats through an aural nightmare like a phantom lost in eternal purgatory. “Zodiac Black”, with its massive beats and intricate synth arrangement, occupies the same sonic territory as “Faux Suede Drifter” -- the two of them together are 10 minutes of spectral midnight music that threatens to overwhelm the senses with its dramatic power.
Unfortunately, they follow these two magnificent epics with another downbeat track with whispery vocals, “Beast That Never Was”, that doesn’t have quite the same breathtaking potency. It’s one song too many in this dark sequence. The pace picks up briefly with “Everything is Never Enough”, which takes us back to more traditional Goldfrapp territory. On an album with few obvious singles, this one might be a possibility. It’s easy to imagine high energy remixes lifting it to a higher level of excitement.
After that one brief burst of uptempo energy, “Moon in Your Mouth” takes us back to that spooky chilled-out vibe that dominates the second half of Silver Eye, and while it’s a step above “Beast That Never Was", it again pales after the extraordinary one-two punch of “Faux Suede Drifter” and “Zodiac Black”. There is a sameness that might help keep the album coherent but allows a bit of tedium to creep into the mix. Much better is the final track, “Ocean”, on which Alison Goldfrapp delivers a particularly riveting vocal over a wall-of-sound built on heavy electronic beats and pulse-pounding synths. “Ocean” is perpetual motion, waves of sound, with textures weaving in and out, likes flashes of light flitting in and around the stars as you’re laying back and looking up at the midnight sky while tripping on acid. Or so I would imagine.
Silver Eye comes close to being an absolute triumph, thanks in large part to the extraordinary sonic boom that the production packs. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by a few weaker moments that prevent it from actually reaching that top-tier level of an album that might compete for one of the year’s best, but it’s close -- very very close. It’s well worth picking up and absorbing, hopefully on a good pair of headphones while cocooned in darkness. In the right frame of mind, Silver Eye will take you on a journey through distant and nebulous corners of space, where humans and machines are intertwined, reality is not quite defined, and everything is cloaked in shadow that seeps into your headspace. Sure, it’s a scary place to be, but sometimes exploring the dark side of the force pays dividends as long as you keep the faith and don’t let your silver eye burn out. You’ll be lost if you do, and in space, no one can hear you scream.