For four albums, British electropoppers Goldfrapp have established a few truths. The duo, comprised of Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, know how to write a hook. They know how to make you dance. They know how to make electronica have a heart. And they don’t give a damn what their fans want.
Their first album was full of atmospheric electronic that only occasionally veered into pop. The sophomore effort carried over some atmosphere but also provided stellar dance tracks suitable for nights at the club and edgy TV commercials. Supernature, the third effort, was disco pop from start to finish. It took all of the hooks of the previous album and wrapped them in a mirrorball. Then, as if to alienate the fans who missed the experimental beginnings and the ones who cherished the commercial pop, Goldfrapp released Seventh Tree, a collection of pastoral tracks that ranged from catchy to meandering. Although the LP was one of the group’s strongest, it was unexpectedly downbeat. Even the catchy numbers were dulled by somber tones. The shine and pop of Supernature was replaced with autumnal hues.
And now they give us Head First. The colors are still muted, but they’re certainly not any colors you’d find in nature. This album is 1980’s from beginning to end, and everything sounds like faded fluorescents. The nostalgia could make your eyes roll, but don’t dismiss Head First just yet. It’s not an homage to an era gone by, nor is it a sarcastic take on an era filled with greed and artifice. It’s a 2010 album that sounds like it could have been released in 1985. Goldfrapp sings each line with the sass and emotion she’s employed for the last decade. She doesn’t wink or bat her lashes as if she’s in on the joke. The artwork is so camp it’s almost genuine, but the music sits comfortably in the land of Reagan.
The opening track and first single, “Rocket”, invokes the synths of Van Halen’s “Jump” and doesn’t get any less vintage for its four minutes. The song seems to have a feel-good chorus with its repetition of: “Oh oh oh, I’ve got a rocket / Oh, oh, oh / You’re going on it / You’re never coming back”. Listen to the verses (and watch the cheeky video), and you realize she’s ridding herself of a cheating lover. He’s not riding a euphemistic rocket—she’s sending him away on a literal rocket. In case you didn’t understand, she counts down until a blaring rocket lifts off in the final moments of the song.
The next two tracks are as tight and Top 40 as “Rocket”. “Believer” invokes ping-pong electronics that bounce from speaker to speaker, and not a note diverts from the verse-chorus-verse structure. “Alive” uses a keyboard in place of a piano, staying true to the era, while Goldfrapp coos in the soft register she took command of on Seventh Tree. The blunt vocals of earlier tracks, such as “Ooh La La” or “Train”, are long gone. She’s as soft as the electronic drum samples backing her.
The turning point of the album comes with track four, “Dreaming”. As the title suggests, it’s a spacey track calls to mind the Eurythmics or Depeche Mode. Goldfrapp is singing from her heart but the music hints at a sinister rhythm not quite as gentle as “Rocket”. “Dreaming” and most of the subsequent tracks are noticeably darker than the opening trio. The brooding “Hunt” (which continues with her ability to sing so softly you can’t understand the lyrics without the liner notes in front of you) recounts Goldfrapp’s lover’s failings: “Every night, every day making plans for your escape/All you love you destroy/Everyone is your toy.” Ouch.
Even “Shiny and Warm”, which is reminiscent of Supernature’s honky-tonk track “Satin Chic”, feels like a love song that just won’t happen. It’s mired in low notes and spaceship sounds that make the lyrics about devotion sound insincere. When the music drops out midway through so that Goldfrapp whispers, you can imagine an arena of brightly dressed teenagers hanging on her every word. This album probably won’t make the duo a household name, but nearly three decades ago, they would’ve been the king and queen of arena dance.
The only head-scratching moment of Head First comes with the closer, “Voicething”. It literally is a voice thing. Think Tangerine Dream but not quite as heady. A snippet of Goldfrapp vocals is looped until other loops come in and overlap them. You eventually get a chorus of her singing unintelligible blips with a rising synth in the background. Still, it’s not as challenging as the instrumental work on Felt Mountain, their debut. This song sounds like Goldfrapp and Gregory found unused snippets from the recording sessions and wanted to give the album a respectable outro rather than letting it just stop.
Listeners old and new might be resistant to the album, especially if they only heard some of the lead tracks as they leaked over the past two months. Rest assured, in context, the songs are perfect exercises in pop. Undoubtedly people who hated the ’80s will hate this album, too. But after a few spins—which won’t be hard to do seeing as the album runs less than 40 minutes—you’ll want to return to Head First. While many of today’s bands sarcastically invoke the past like an American Apparel zippy, Goldfrapp are shamelessly pulling out the Jordache without a care for who’s judging them.