Head First, Goldfrapp's latest album, carves a new groove in the middle of the road.
Goldfrapp: Head First
If the band Goldfrapp were a girl in my class at school, I'd probably love and hate her in equal measures. She would of course be perfectly groomed, hard-working and undeniably alluring, yet at the same time humourless, superficial and a little bit dull. She'd be the kind of girl I wouldn't mind taking to a dance or introducing to my parents, but I'd try to avoid having a conversation with her. On opening her mouth she would make all the right sounds, but rarely say anything very exciting.
The electro-pop duo's fifth album delivers exactly what they are known for. It has the atmospheric vocals, fuzzy chords, catchy hooks and lush production that have made the English group an international success. But as well as offering something assuredly the same, it also marks a new direction for the group, who have carved their way through ambient pop, electroclash, glam-rock and pagan folk over the past decade: Head First has summery tones, unusually lighthearted lyrics and bristling 1980s-sounding synths - you could call it their optimistic record.
But, just like their previous ventures, whenever Goldfrapp carve a path anywhere, they always travel straight down the middle of the road. The opener, Rocket, launches the album into being with all the playfulness of Fever-era Kylie Minogue and a singalong chorus to match. Alison Goldfrapp's vocals are typically flirtatious and begin to make the album feel rather thrilling. Although that doesn't last long, the second track, Believer, keeps up the pace for a while, also evoking the tiny Australian singer's more energetic moments.
But after the infectious fun of the first two tracks, things become rather more humdrum. Alive is perhaps the most upbeat and celebratory creation of the group's entire career, but there's something a little cloying about its "feeling alive again, alive again" chorus, which frequently spills over into mullet-rock guitar noodling. The title track, Head First, forgets to have a sense of humour about itself and veers dangerously close to the sound of the soft rock practitioners Texas. The LP's middle section is lifted somewhat by the gothy and hypnotic Dreaming, which offers a welcome return to the band's moodier selves.
Towards the end of the album, Shiny and Warm offers a bouncing synth and crashing drums and provides the album's foremost foot-tapping moment. The album's lows certainly don't outweigh its highs and it is taut enough (at 38 minutes) for none of the sickly sweet flavours to linger very long. Like the band's previous work, Head First shows an impressive commitment to, and mastery of, the musical genre in hand: in this case early 1980s synth music. But unlike those synth pioneers, or indeed many of the people who have spent the last decade reshaping their genius, this album adds nothing new to the canon.