The first impression of opening track, “Clowns,” from Alison Goldfrapp’s newest gambit Seventh Tree, is that she’s gone to the country to get her head together. Mostly absent are the Shirley-Bassey-meets-Bladerunner cyber-chanteuse theatrics of old, replaced by twilit English pastorals, lush synths, and strings. Acoustic guitar and birdcalls sound like the sun setting over a distant hill, while Goldfrapp herself is weary but hopeful, her voice quietly burbling, conjuring up whispers of Vashti Bunyan and Linda Thompson. There’s also a Beatles/Merseybeat influence readily apparent in the jaunty, horn-driven bounce n’ caper of “Happiness” that’s just screaming out to be the centerpiece in a musical set on Carnaby Street. Baby, we’re a long way from Berlin, aren’t we?
Fear not, there are occasional nods to the icy chanteuse of old. “Eat Yourself” has a fucking spooky-ass music box or old scratchy 78 vibe. Ancient, scratchy strings ghost in and out of your speaker (listen to that hiss and crackle) and her voice sounds so fragile and yet knowing that I just imagine Alan Lomax holding up the microphone to her mouth, nodding approvingly as each new verse builds on the last. The instrumentation builds in strength to Walker Bros. assuredness with great orchestral swoons over long sensual oooohs. “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” has all the breathy sass and sultry sophistication that you hunger for in a Goldfrapp album (finally!), huge John Barry strings and girl-group backing vocal vamps on the verses and an atmosphere like a Bond Girl theme, with the Goldfrapp’s voice piercing through the silken instrumentation with clear, crystalline trilling or husky whispers — and them’s the highlights, by and large.
Y’know, I heard “Caravan Girl” in this restaurant, played right after a recent U2 song. And I guess that’s where the trouble began. It’s a capitol P-O-P number, with piano-driven verses that build and build to these choruses that are just Springsteen-level (or Coldplay, urk) anthemic, with explosions of synths and chugging guitar and a small army of Goldfrapps harmonizing. But at the same time it felt too normal. Like it could’ve been any chart denizen. And that ain’t fucking right. The problem with Seventh Tree is that there are long stretches where it drags, like “Road To Somewhere” and the strangely incomplete “Monster Love,” and it feels too mannered and grown-up and coffee-bar polite. Goldfrapp doesn’t do organic and earthy as well as, say, Björk or even Jarboe. I just can’t shake the overriding feeling that Seventh Tree is like putting all your cool dress-up clothes and party dresses away and putting on a sensible smock instead. Hell, maybe going back to the country isn’t all it’s fucking cracked up to be. Who needs all that fucking fresh air and sunlight, geez, and the bugs, and nothing to do? You might lose your sickness, your edge.
Alison Goldfrapp is still a captivating performer, and change is good. Let’s just hope that change is better next time around.
Mute Records: www.mute.com