Goldfrapp have never been fond of categorization. Throughout their 10-year career, the British duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have earned a reputation for pop ambiguity, shifting from the ambient cinema of their 2000 debut, Felt Mounitan, to the icy new wave and glam of 2003’s Black Cherry and 2005’s Supernature and the lush folk pop of Seventh Tree in 2008.
With their fifth full-length album, Head First, to be released on March 23 on Mute Records, Goldfrapp have become a little less guarded, plunging into the colourful disco fantasia of the 1980s to produce an unambiguously euphoric album — territory they’ve flirted with before, oddly enough.
On Goldfrapp’s 2001 tour, the band punctured a set list of Felt Mountain‘s eerily romantic soundscapes with a cover of Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” This time, the perky pop icon’s melancholic musical Xanadu was a direct inspiration.
“I love Olivia Newton-John,” front-woman Alison Goldfrapp says over the phone from London. “Probably because I feel like when I look at her, she’s completely the opposite of me: she’s kind of sweet and lovely and looks really innocent and fresh and gorgeous, and she’s probably really nice and wholesome.
“I’m the complete opposite!” she laughs.
Written and recorded over six months in a West Country house, Head First‘s nine songs mix acoustic instrumentation, synthesizers and spacey sound effects with breezy melodies and breathy, intimate vocals that float and drift over pared-down propulsive beats.
“These songs are all quite optimistic and celebratory, anthemic at times,” she says. “I think they’re quite unselfconscious.”
Asked if the music of the band’s previous four albums was more self-conscious, Goldrapp pauses and chooses her words carefully.
“I think the music we’ve done in the past has maybe been more ambiguous and more thoughtful in its sentiment,” she says. “[‘Head first’ means] to go into something without fear — head first in love. It’s not trivial. I think it’s more celebratory. Maybe music we’ve done in the past hasn’t been as celebratory or as direct.”
Head First‘s lead single, the cheerfully caustic “Rocket,” has drawn comparisons to Van Halen’s “Jump,” while its video casts the singer as a sultry sadist who gleefully straps a victim to a glittering, purple-tipped rocket and launches it into outer space. Europop optimism shines brightly on songs like “Alive,” which bounces along on a rollicking piano melody, the wistful Italo number “Dreaming” and the vocal swagger of “Shiny and Warm.”
Only on the final track do Goldfrapp cut loose from the pop format, with an ambient choral sound piece called “Voicething.”
Goldfrapp is in the midst of planning a live show in support of Head First, but says it’s too early to reveal any details. As usual, Gregory will have a hand in organizing the tour but will not join her on the road.
“It’s probably one of the reasons why our relationship has lasted so long,” she says. “I think it is a struggle for bands when they have to be together for 24 hours a day and they’re in the studio for a year making an album…. I think Will feels it’s just not his thing, and I think that’s fine.”
Goldfrapp is busy overseeing artwork, designing costumes and prepping for TV appearances in Europe. All of that doesn’t leave much time for side-projects, though she and Gregory did manage to clock studio time with Christina Aguilera in Los Angeles last year.
The pop starlet tapped Goldfrapp and several other indie acts to work on new material, but the results remain shrouded in mystery. Goldfrapp penned one song but never finished it and has no idea whether or not it will see the light of day.
“She was very lovely and very relaxed, and it was all in her little room at the back of her garden,” she says. “I thought we were going to go into this big flashy studio with her people around, and it wasn’t like that at all.”
As Goldfrapp’s music has become less ambiguous, so too have the details of her personal life. In an article from December 2009 (ridiculously entitled “The rise of mid-life lesbians“), the Times newspaper outed Goldfrapp’s relationship with film editor Lisa Gunning. When a reporter from the same paper asked if she was a lesbian two months later, she replied: “My sexuality is the same as my music and my life. Why does it need a label?”
“I’ve always been like that, since I was a kid,” she says. “It’s always been an instinctive, natural thing. I’ve always had that sense that anything’s possible, anything goes and that there are no black and whites.”
For more on Goldfrapp, check out Goldfrapp.com.