Album review: Goldfrapp – Silver Eye

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

Goldfrapp has never been completely embraced by the cool, serious media. Considering their art-school credentials and avant-garde leanings in respect to both the duo’s carefully managed visuals and their often underground musical influences, in some places Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s 17-year career has barely been acknowledged. One view is that the electronic (usually) twosome have built a career off the back of their influences, visually and musically, and have contributed little themselves that is either authentic or original since their cinematic and enduring debut album (Kanye sampled it on The Life of Pablo), Felt Mountain, arrived in 2000. Cocteau Twins, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, Berlin-era Bowie, TRex and Kate Bush can all be been heard but this is also the go-to, cool-cat musical icons list that not only Goldfrapp, but every new and ‘essential’ artist, gushingly cite as major influences.

Interestingly then, the group’s glam-rock juggernaut singles ‘Strict Machine’ and ‘Ooh La La’ went on to create what was referred to as the covetable ‘Goldfrapp sound’, desirable enough even for pop gods Madonna and Kylie, amongst many other lesser mortals such as Rachel Stevens (in the view of some, including Alison Goldfrapp herself), to carbon copy it. This period for Goldfrapp lasted over two albums only: 2003’s Black Cherry and their big pop release from 2005, Supernature. Since then Goldfrapp have alternated between releasing a slower, acoustic-based record (their last album from 2013, Tales of Us) and something more frivolous and synthetic like the Italo-disco of 2010’s Head First. Seemingly, and in-keeping with this pattern, it would appear that 2017 Goldfrapp have yet again returned with another electro-storming full-length, but Silver Eye‘s muscular and throbbing first third turns out to be a somewhat misleading lead-in.

Lead single ‘Anymore’ is followed by ‘Systemagic’ and both are certainly a throwback to the hedonistic dance-floor DNA of Black Cherry and Supernature. Where ‘Anymore’ has a ragged sonic scuzziness and some unmannered vocals heard rarely on a Goldfrapp record, the Schaffel-beats of ‘Systemagic’ are a thicker, denser retread of those earlier blockbuster hits. ‘Tigerman’, not the obvious glam stomp one might imagine based on the song’s retro title, is a full-blooded and romantic ode to a beastly hybrid monster, its unhurried synths and bass booms pumping darkly throughout like fragrant, black ink.

The final song to maintain this forceful, sonic robustness before Silver Eye readjusts its path, was inspired by a film documenting transgender children. ‘Become the One’ sees Alison Goldfrapp reborn as a gender-less and steely automaton, invigorating and authoritarian as she instructs the necessity of the song’s title.

The additional production duties of heavy hitters John Congleton (St Vincent, Anthony and the Johnsons) and electro-drone specialist The Haxon Cloak (Bjork) has resulted in a foreboding and taut soundscape that is intricately and densely layered and stunningly realised in its detail. Silver Eye is entirely electronic to the extent that, in a first for the group, it doesn’t even feature strings. However, the album’s midsection is a micro-suite of three tracks that could have appeared on the band’s most sonically organic album, 2008’s Seventh Tree, albeit with folkier intentions and a less threatening resolve. Starting with the languid, hallucinogenic ‘Faux Suede Drifter’ through to the more structured ‘Beast That Never Was’, this is a further representation, and deepening, of Goldfrapp’s core persona and flip side. Intentionally, and successfully, lacking the immediacy of the proceeding songs, ‘Zodiac Black’ in particular is a masterclass in creating gorgeous abstract space.

Penultimate track ‘Moon in Your Mouth’ and album closer ‘Ocean’ are the most fully formed and lyrical songs here, and also the best. The themes of spiritual, as well as physical, transformation and the dependence on nature that can no longer be taken for granted, are explored explicitly on these tracks. ‘Moon in Your Mouth’ (‘I’m alive’) represents the light and ‘Ocean’ (‘I poisoned me’) the dark and lost. Whilst ‘Moon in Your Mouth’ is an intricate and beautiful synth-pop ballad, with glittering, unexpected corners and declarations of soulful unity, ‘Ocean’ has an industrial heft and severity which is unexpectedly macabre with a powerful sense of menace. Like the rest of Silver Eye though, both of these extremes are still instantly recognisable as being from a Goldfrapp record.

Instead of returning reinvented, the underrated odd couple have this time turned inwards slightly, and by doing so have only further reaffirmed their unique and invaluable contribution to British pop. They may still be hounded by minor voices that doubt their credibility, but when they sound this good Goldfrapp have no reason to justify their continuing desire to soundtrack their otherworldly, but increasingly necessary, utopia.

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