Strict machine, strict morals

To mark the end of their time as residents on the EMI/Parlophone roster, Goldfrapp have elided their finest singles into a neat collection with typically gorgeous artwork (Mat Maitland at Big Active gave me an early love of graphic design) and two new compositions.

It’s a fine body of work which encourages listeners to not only reappraise the combo’s most radio-friendly material, but also seek out deeper cuts which might have been released as singles in a parallel, more sophisticated universe. It’s inevitable, with a collection like this, to notice the absences, but concision makes the collection all the more elegantly sequenced.

“Elegant is an appropriate word to describe Goldfrapp”

Elegant is an appropriate word to describe Goldfrapp. Even at their most sexually charged (see “Strict Machine“, from 2003’s Black Cherry), there is a quaint naïveté to the music and the lyrics which is at odds with their image. The prevailing mood of 2005’s Supernature, from the artwork downwards, was intended to be sleazy, but its standout songs (the ubiquitous “Ooh La La” which opens this compilation, and the dominating “Ride A White Horse“) quickly trade smut for euphoria. That album also featured two quasi-ballads, “Let It Take You”(see below) and “Time Out From The World“, both beatless and stratospheric, and rich in emotional baggage. At their zenith, Goldfrapp appeared to have beamed in from a very different place.

“Seventh Tree repositioned them in the mode of Beck circa Sea Change: acoustic and woody in timbre, and tepid in dynamics”

The duo then took quite an about turn in their career, eschewing the disco ball of Supernature and Black Cherry, and the alpine, noirish cabaret of their debut, Felt Mountain. 2008’s Seventh Tree repositioned them in the mode of Beck circa Sea Change. Acoustic and woody in timbre, and tepid in dynamics, the singles from this era don’t stick in the mind so much, but their mid-table position in this new compilation allows you to enjoy the very particular sonic details that made it, in aggregate, a rather bleak and tired affair. It’s a pity they never released the best song on the album, “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” (see below), which harks back to the age of soul with its orchestral flourishes and squelchy keys. The song is airy and helium-powered, in stark contrast to the songs which surrounded it.

“Head First was an exercise in cheap 1980s neon retreads”

The final act in the Goldfrapp/EMI partnership was the most sorrowful. Where Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory once created the Ur-sounds that would be replicated by others (Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor was reputedly inspired by Supernature), 2010’s Head First was an exercise in cheap 1980s neon retreads. Alas, below the head-rush, it was limb-less.

Goldfrapp’s falling star tendencies might lead the listener to imagine this compilation as a parting shot. It doesn’t help that the new songs sound elegiac and stately, and that they close out the track-listing. (They are both, however, lovely: “Yellow Halo” softly pulsates through French touch and blog house, sounding a bit like Friendly Fires and Cut Copy; “Melancholy Sky” (see top of article) is lounge-y and evokes comparisons with the duo’s Felt Mountain sound.) But Goldfrapp are nothing if not determined. Currently at work on their sixth album, Will and Alison remain a creative partnership to be written off at one’s peril. So let’s hope The Singles proves not to be a swansong, but the closing of a chapter in the career of a duo who are often overlooked but never underrepresented in their impact on popular music.

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