CD of the week: Goldfrapp, Seventh Tree


The year of 1977 was tough for Gryphon, a medievally inclined prog rock band heavy on the crumhorn and the hey-nonny-no. Alas, public tolerance for such things had waned, a victim of changing times. Nothing if not pragmatic, Gryphon's members re-emerged as the Banned, purveyors of punk-friendly garage rock. Bassist Jon Davie adopted the nom de punk John Thomas; whatever you think of their opportunism, you can't fault the dedication of a man so keen to keep his career alive he was willing to name himself after a euphemism for the penis.

Gryphon's story is a perfect example of the sudden musical volte-face. Thirty years ago, everyone was at it. There were artists for whom constant reinvention was a raison d'être - David Bowie and Dexys Midnight Runners - but more commonly, it was a matter of necessity for bands buffeted by the turbulence of an unpredictable music scene. In recent years, it has become rather a lost art, possibly because rock and pop no longer shifts as dramatically as it once did, possibly because major artists are lacking either in imagination, or in the pluck required to challenge their audience.

Either way, it's a state of affairs that adds a frisson to Goldfrapp's fourth album. The successor to two collections of camply sexualised, glam-influenced electro-pop, Seventh Tree represents a dramatic rethink: out go the stomping glitter beats and whip-crack synthesisers, in comes "psychedelic folk". One can understand Alison Goldfrapp and collaborator Will Gregory's logic. When you've appeared on stage playing a theremin with your crotch while dressed as a kind of besequinned Nazi air hostess, as Goldfrapp did after the release of 2005's Supernature, you could reasonably argue that you've explored the possibilities of camply sexualised glam-influenced electro-pop pretty thoroughly. Nonetheless, it's still a bold move. Supernature and its predecessor Black Cherry were both platinum sellers. They even influenced Madonna, who found herself labelled Oldfrapp as a result.

As you might expect from a woman who chose to illustrate her conjunction of electronic music and eroticism by playing a synthesiser with her private parts, Seventh Tree is not overly coyin signposting its new approach. It opens with its most opaque track, Clowns, a misty confection of gently picked acoustic guitar, strings audibly influenced by Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left, twittering birdsong and an almost completely incomprehensible vocal: "Only clowns apley wurgh doh bollergh," she sings, her voice equal parts Kate Bush and Liz Fraser. Quite what the lyrics are driving at remains a mystery - they could just be a load of old bollerghs - but notice of a musical volte-face is duly served. Equally evident is that Goldfrapp and Gregory's songwriting powers have not been damaged in transit: opaque the sound may be, but the melody is beguilingly beautiful. So is Little Birds, another fantastic song, this time with intelligible lyrics and an unexpected Strawberry Fields Forever-ish coda.

There are drawbacks to this gently pastoral approach. Road to Somewhere and Some People veer close to bucolic easy listening: they're a bit middle of the public bridleway. And you could complain that there's nothing new here. There was a certain circular irony in Goldfrapp being ripped off by Madonna: like Mrs Ritchie, Goldfrapp's skill lies in a canny ability to alight on other artists' ideas and polish them up for mass acceptance. Supernature and Black Cherry were indebted to Add N to (X), a 90s trio also big on synthesisers, shagging and 70s pop. Seventh Tree's accompanying blurb depicts Goldfrapp and Gregory, secluded in Somerset, coming up with the notion of making a Wicker Man-influenced psychedelic folk album. This seems a bit much, given the legions of artists that have made Wicker Man-influenced psychedelic folk albums in recent years: walk into any new-folk club and you risk being deafened by the slap of twigs on Britt Ekland's bum.

But who-did-it-first is a joyless game best left to message board bores. You'd be better served playing who-did-it best, and what's striking about Seventh Tree is how deftly it manipulates well-worn ideas. They don't come much more well-worn than pilfering the slippery funk and cinematic strings of Serge Gainsbourg's Melody Nelson, yet Cologne Cerrone Houdini is a delight: a slow, sensual drift of a song, further enlivened by Goldfrapp's intriguing decision to sink zer verses in a Cherman accent. If she can make something this fresh out of ostensibly stale source material, what might she do next? The answer, rather thrillingly, is: who knows? As our old chum John Thomas might have told us, an artist given to the sudden musical volte-face is impossible to predict.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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