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Date March 22
Type Review
Source Wears the trousers magazine
Title Goldfrapp, Head First
Country UK
Journalist/Photographer Leigh Bartlam
Text The chameleon is a peculiar creature that the world doesn’t fully understand. Although no one can be totally sure, the idea that the chameleon changes its colour to blend into its immediate environment to avoid prey is considered something of a misconception. Those more educated in the behaviour of lizards believe that it’s more of an emotional response triggered by light reflected off its unique skin pigmentation. Those of us who couldn’t care less would argue that the difference between these two theories is neither here nor there. You can either see a chameleon on a tree or you can’t because it’s blended in so flawlessly. But for us mere humans, surely the point of a party trick is to stand out in a crowd?

The press release cites Head First as Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s “most powerful trip to date, a speedy rush of synth optimism, euphoria, fantasy and romance”. Interesting then that the cover art and promotional pictures for the pair’s fifth studio outing should find Alison dressed in a cloud-patterned boiler suit, blending into a distant sky. All too appropriate, it’s remarkable how a record sleeve so generic can so exactly sum up an album of equally soft-focused and sadly diluted work as this. Despite so much having been made of Goldfrapp’s ever evolving sound and image, Head First merely confirms the suspicion that the last two albums seemed to raise; that the ‘evolution’ has stalled and Goldfrapp are now just bouncing back and forth between zones in which they are only too comfy.

Despite the embracing of acoustic instruments for 2008’s electro-rustic Seventh Tree, all Goldfrapp really achieved there was to sound quite pretty, ultimately failing to reprise any of the grip and exquisite tension of, say, Felt Mountain. It was by no means ”broke”, but if Goldfrapp are ever to really secure their place in our generation’s contemporary pop legacy, a “fix” is sorely needed in the form of a serious leap forward in their sound to deliver something that sounds as fresh as their debut did ten years ago. Head First simply fails to do this on all counts, spinning its wheels awkwardly somewhere between the gloss of 2005’s Supernature and the mood of Seventh Tree.

Lead single ‘Rocket’ is pleasant enough pop fluff, but hardly the attention grabbing bullseye we’ve come to expect. Its quirky Van Halen-esque synths keep it just about one step ahead of the competition, though the track as a whole bears a bizarre passing resemblance to Girls Aloud’s ‘The Loving Kind’. Not perhaps what they were aiming for. And while the other eight songs cleanly follow ‘Rocket’s lead and never detour, ‘Alive’ plays utter havoc with the memory with its extensive abuse of retro signposts. At the track’s peak, it hits the pure camp heights of Olivia Newton-John and ELO’s ‘Xanadu’, but the clumsy honky tonk piano verses drag it down to such subterranean levels as the theme from ‘Minder’. Blending disparate styles is something to encourage, but Goldfrapp have emerged with nothing but a woeful, if well-varnished, mess.

The continuity that follows works a little too smoothly and the album blurs by with only the occasional doff of the hat to the past to snap your attention back into focus. The title track’s first minute gives more than a passing nod to the INXS classic ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ before sprinkling a little Goldfrapp glitter and lifting the tempo slightly to make it their own. Not exactly groundbreaking, but its clever ’80s power balladry is at least a brief respite from what had threatened to be a pretty monotonous ride. Still, ’Shiny & Warm’ is the only track that manages to stand up on its own; though it keeps a firm hand on the ’80s vibe, Goldfrapp finally show some balls with some sexy flashes of mischief, a seductive backdrop of bass and drums and Alison cooing out, “Coming around, coming around / I’m almost there for you!”

By the time the finale ‘Voicething’ rolls around, however, Goldfrapp seem a rather spent force. Yes, it’s a beautifully cut and pasted collage of “ooh”s and “aah”s that manages to restore a little of the alien mystique the band once had, but it’s an odd choice of track to close an album of glossy ’80s electro tributes. While there’s no doubt Goldfrapp have become rather expert in what they do, boasting a nearly unrivalled ability to add polish, class and seduction to everything to which they turn their hands, Head First finds them in a deep, dull rut. Where it should have capitalised on the muted surprise of Seventh Tree with a bold trajectory into the unknown, instead it barely even hints at a tangent.

Perhaps taking the chameleon tag a little too literally, Goldfrapp are at risk of simply vanishing into their own cushioned niche. Why is irrelevant. Fact is, the electro crowd is much too dense these days to do little more than hold up a mirror. Innovate, not acclimate. We know they can do it.

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