“It’s got more of a round feeling, wouldn’t you say? Not so spiky.” Alison Goldfrapp gazes into the middle-distance and squints – as if to do so would allow her to better describe what she sees when she thinks about GOLDFRAPP’s self-produced fifth album, Head First (released March 2010). Sitting next to her, rather earlier in the morning than either would have liked, is her right-hand man, Will Gregory. He runs a hand through his hair and fixes his gaze on the same point. If they both seem a little surprised by the album poised before them, it’s with good reason. For one thing, Head First took just six months to write and record. Some records, it seems, just unfold in front of you, and your job as the artist is merely to follow the path laid down by them. One song points the way to the next one, which in turn establishes the conditions for the one after that. And so on, and so on.
“Head First is one of those albums,” suggests Will. “We’ve made ‘up’-sounding records before,” elaborates Alison. “You had things like ‘Ooh La La,’ which were very hands-in-the-air, but there was a softness missing which I think is definitely present on these songs.” A vulnerability too, perhaps. Worlds away from the glamtastic sado-pop of albums like Black Cherry and Supernature, it’s a vulnerability that announces itself on digitized dawn choruses like “Alive” and “Believer.” Portending a chorus of understated digital euphoria, the latter song sees Alison intone, “Without you I would die,” on what she describes as a song “about rediscovering love and believing in it again.”
The vertiginous thrill of new love is also detectable in a title track which divines a vocal of hitherto unsurpassed tenderness from Alison. If the candour of these songs doesn't disarm you, then the manner of their execution will do. The kinetic nocturnal Europop of “I Wanna Life” is a perfect complement to Alison’s yearningly insistent vocal – whilst “Rocket” may be the most jubilantly catchy revenge song to ever head up a pop album.
From the startling, Yma Sumac-style falsetto of Felt Mountain’s “Pilots” to the Donovan-patented pootling pixie beat of “Happiness” Goldfrapp have long been dab hands at picking out decommissioned sounds from the sonic warehouse space of pop’s past and recontextualizing them for the way we live today. For instance, the cavernous unease of Giorgio Moroder’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” was the starting point for what developed into Head First’s darkest song, “Hunt.”
Appropriately for a song whose hypnotic electronic pulse better evokes a tin womb than the West Country recording studio where it was created, “Shiny And Warm” is “about that sense of well-being you get when you’re in a car late at night.” Alison continues, “I had been listening to a lot of Suicide, in particular Cheree, and I wanted to tap into that.”
When did Goldfrapp know they were finished? They completed a total of 13 songs altogether, but from the outset Will and Alison told each other that this album would feature nine songs in total. “Obviously,” explains Will, “because you can get 74 minutes of music on a CD, you have a tendency in artists not to edit their ideas as rigorously.” With eight songs that seemed to cohere as a whole, the final piece of the jigsaw was Head First’s ravishing climax. “We wanted to do something that was almost the opposite to everything that had preceded it,” explains Alison. And sure enough, “Voicething” sees a choir of Alisons gather, soar, separate and re-converge like birds at sundown, while a slow upsurge of chords fills the remaining space like a thermal current.
Having drawn from a more disparate set of influences than they had done for any of their previous albums, Alison and Will were, perhaps understandably, concerned that Head First might signal too great a departure from what had gone before it. The first person they played it to was Daniel Miller, synth pioneer with The Normal and, of course, the long-serving head of Mute. “He said it simultaneously sounded nothing like our other albums, but unmistakeably us,” says Will.
But hasn’t it ever been thus with Goldfrapp? Ten years since Felt Mountain announced their arrival to the wider world, they’ve perfected the art of delivering the album we didn’t know we wanted them to make. Head First is no exception. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” ponders Alison Goldfrapp. “I sometimes think, ‘Why can’t we make our lives easy and just do the same album over and over again? But the bottom line is that I don’t think we could, even if we tried. The whole point is that you're trying to discover sounds, and tell a story about what’s going on in your life. You could make more money by finding a formula and sticking to it. But that seems to us to be totally pointless.”
Head First was released on March 22, 2010.
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