Goldfrapp: Head First | CD review

Goldfrapp has gone straight down the middle of the road for her latest. Alexis Petridis gets tired of the view

There has been much recent debate as to whether or not record companies still have a role to play in the gleaming, internet-driven 21st century. What, the naysayers ask, can they alone do that nobody else would? Head First provides an answer: they can send out the new Goldfrapp album for review with a two-page confidentiality agreement, which delightfully refers to Alison Goldfrapp and her musical partner, Will Gregory, as "the Project" and demands your lips remain sealed not only on the subject of "recordings, musical works, sound recordings, vocals", but also "discoveries, ideas, concepts, techniques" and something mysteriously referred to only as "know-how". "You shall restrict disclosure of the Information solely to your employees, principals, agents, directors and contractors with a need to know such Information," it thunders. "You will notify Mute immediately upon discovery of any unauthorised use or disclosure of information or any other breach of this agreement." The implication here seems to be that if you describe to your wife what the new Goldfrapp album sounds like – or worse, spill the beans on the vitally-important subject of its know-how – you're supposed to ring the record label and confess all or else they'll drag you up before the beak.

As the wag remarked when obscenity charges were brought against Robert Mapplethorpe's photo of a flaccid penis, it probably won't stand up in court – which does lead you to wonder what the point is. Perhaps this legal sabre-rattling exists as a kind of perverse promotional puff, designed to emphasise the album's magnitude and significance: here is something of such monumental importance it requires a police escort. If that's right, it's hard not to feel that in this case it proves slightly counterproductive. You plough your way through the stuff about injunctive relief and how the High Court of Justice In England shall be the Court of Jurisdiction and think, bloody hell, it's only the new Goldfrapp album, not conclusive proof that David Icke was right all along and Prince Phillip actually is a 12-foot paedophile lizard. Don't get your knickers in a twist.

Nevertheless, it underlines the consequence Mute is pinning on Goldfrapp's fifth album. Her last, 2008's folk-influenced Seventh Tree, sold substantially less than its platinum predecessor Supernature, evidence more of the mainstream public's continuing resistance to anything that smacks of the morris man and the hey-nonny-no than of a decline in musical quality. Nevertheless, Head First returns Goldfrapp to commercial waters – this time the glossy, optimistic 1980s pop that provides the playlist backbone of Magic FM. The single, Rocket, carries the influence of Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra's Xanadu. The kind of euphoric we've-just-won-the-World-Cup synthesiser fanfares that power both Van Halen's Jump and PhD's I Won't Let You Down abound, there's the occasional hint of Tango in the Night-era Fleetwood Mac, and you're never that far from a conjunction of wobbling electronics and anthemic chorus that recalls Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder's Together in Electric Dreams.

It's a risky strategy. If you were forced at gunpoint to say what you think Goldfrapp's know-how might be, you could suggest it largely involved nicking other people's ideas and presenting them in a manner acceptable to a mass audience. It's a process at which they're enormously skilled. It has in the past, kept them ahead of the mainstream pop curve: fizzing synthesisers and stomping Glitter beats became manufactured pop's default setting after Goldfrapp borrowed them from Add N To (X). But here the pair have been beaten to it by Xenomania et al: there are moments on Head First where you could be listening to the Saturdays. Furthermore, as anyone who has found themselves inexplicably but inexorably drawn into Magic FM's world while slightly drunk in the back of a late-night cab will tell you, its playlist stands or falls by the quality of the songs alone: they have to pack a flooring, inarguable melodic punch if the listener is to overcome whatever stupid neuroses they may have about perceived naffness.

In fairness, Head First is more than capable of doing this: Dreaming is exhilaratingly jubilant, the title track – which adds a generous pinch of Abba to the proceedings – is irresistible. Rocket, meanwhile, is a single so commercial it virtually bounds out of the speakers, heads for HMV and buys 15 copies of itself, which makes its first-week chart placing at a lowly 47 a little baffling. Perhaps the record label kept its release too confidential.

Equally, however, there are instances when the songwriting isn't that exciting, when the choruses don't ascend quite as stratospherically as they're supposed to, and you're left listening to what is, in essence, an MOR pop album. The sense that Alison Goldfrapp's heart wasn't entirely in the task or that she found the whole Magic FM sound less fertile than previous musical pastures is compounded by the presence of Shiny and Warm, which harks back to Black Cherry territory, and Voicething, a pleasant but underweight instrumental ambient closer. It's disappointing rather than disastrous, but you wouldn't bet against her coming back next time with something stronger. After all, as the accompanying legal bumf makes clear, she's got the know-how.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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