Goldfrapp: Seventh Tree

Looking curiously like a royally pissed-off Olsen twin playing dress-up on the cover of Seventh Tree, Alison Goldfrapp stares defiantly at the viewer—a projection maybe but one perhaps not too far off the mark, given the potentially divisive direction Goldfrapp and Will Gregory take on their fourth album. Long gone is the disco glitter-ball and T. Rex-influenced glam-pop of Supernature, and we're clearly a long way from “Ooh La La.” Instead we get a sunkissed “Goldfrapp Unplugged” style that finds the band rusticating at its studio deep in the peaceful English countryside—the dominatrix whip exchanged for a horse trainer's riding crop. It's a gutsy move that'll no doubt alienate some fans but also may gain the band some new ones. One can easily picture bottom-line record company executives sweating profusely as they imagine droves of long-time listeners trading in their Goldfrapp club memberships after hearing the new work.

True enough, anyone not primed for the sonic makeover may be taken aback by the acoustic guitar and orchestral strings that dominate“Clowns” though Alison's arresting voice suits the setting splendidly, even if lyrics such as “Only clowns would play with those balloons / What d'ya wanna look like Barbie for?” do rather blur together, rendering the vitriol aimed at surgically-enhanced starlets less immediately clear. Echoes of other artists emerge throughout: the breezy “Happiness” mines the rich pop field recently tilled by The Postmarks, and one could easily imagine k.d. lang's swoon substituted for Alison's purr in “Road to Somewhere.” The folk-psychedelia of “Little Bird” calls to mind Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Donovan's “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” while Alison's high-pitched voice swoops over the coda's hilly terrain much as Kate Bush's does in "Wuthering Heights." That trippy vibe also surfaces on the oddly-titled “Eat Yourself” where Alison at her most vulnerable drawls the affecting couplet “So how can I love you so / When I know you don't love me.” On loan from Portishead, Adrian Utley's fuzz guitar lends “Caravan Girl” a raucous rock edge that builds a bridge from Seventh Tree to the band's other albums, but the song with the strongest immediate appeal is “A&E,” an infectious romp that explodes into a gloriously ecstatic episode near its end.

Distinctive instrumental touches such as the Indian guitar and steel-strung harp samples on “Road to Somewhere” and the Optigon (a toy organ operated using tiny optical discs) on “Eat Yourself” boost the album, as do the string stabs and Beatle-esque keyboards in “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” (certainly it's no accident that the lyric “Like diamonds in your hair” coincides with keyboards that evoke “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). Ultimately, though the wardrobe may be dramatically different than before, beneath the clothing Goldfrapp isn't wholly altered—many of these songs would survive fairly seamlessly the transition from their present style to an electric treatment. And to fans of long-standing who might be tempted to jump ship in light of the band's about-face, in all likelihood this lovely folk excursion will, years from now, be seen as just one more audacious chapter in a career filled with recurring shifts in stylistic character.

April 2008