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Release: September 09, 2013
Goldfrapp's synthpop hits, such as 'Ooh La La' and 'Strict Machine', are usually smart, sexy affairs, but carry a sardonic edge when compared to contemporaries' works. The group's previous album perhaps pushed this sarcastic tone too far with the rushed, relentlessly 80s-sounding Head First. It's refreshing then to find Goldfrapp have thrown out the neon jumpsuits in favour of producing the far more genuine, introspective Tales of Us.
Lush and cinematic like their classic debut Felt Mountain, but with the acoustic sounds of Seventh Tree, Tales of Us is Goldfrapp's most sophisticated effort yet. Every song title (bar the mysterious 'Stranger') is the name of a person, fictional or real - a sign that the album is focused heavily on telling deep, intimate stories. Does the album achieve this? On a first listen, not quite. With Alison Goldfrapp's soft, purring vocals and the relatively quiet strings of Will Gregory's ambient composition, the 45-minute album is almost too tranquil. 'Thea' (the only beat-led track) and occasional soaring moments in the orchestration, such as that in the Bond theme-sounding 'Drew', seem to make an impact.
But further listens reveal the beautiful, ethereal nature of Tales of Us. Goldfrapp's stories bloom in the details, twisting and turning with a fairy tale and Gothic horror savour characteristic of their first album. The shift in tone around the 2:40 minute mark of 'Annabel' is spine-tingling, inducing a sense of wonder appropriate to the titular Annabel (taken from Kathleen Winter's novel of the same name) being a gender-questioning child. 'Annabel' works better in the context of the black-and-white music video directed by Lisa Gunning (who also directed the excellent video to 'Drew'), elevating the album's best track to an unforgettable Goldfrapp classic.
Further tracks also excel in their evocativeness, owing in part to Alison's hushed vocals. It's easy to let her often mumbled words wash over, but the lyrics in Tales of Us are rich, skilful and sung with elegance. The initially breezy opening track 'Jo' soon becomes haunting with the quiet repetition "You better run for you life", one of many masterfully unnerving juxtapositions between lyrics and music that Goldfrapp are so capable of creating. The wonderfully hypnotic 'Alvar' is another example, painting vivid images in lines such as "I felt it come a blade of autumn alive" and "I want to swim your silk black skin to the floor".
The album is in danger of becoming monotonous at times, but each track has something new to offer somewhere. 'Ulla' can at times be both melancholic and uplifting, while 'Simone' is delicate yet sinister with its story of a mother in bed with her "insatiable" daughter's lover. The "boy or girl" in 'Stranger' is beautifully ambiguous in comparison, with Morriconeesque whistling similar to the music duo's first ever single 'Lovely Head'. Though almost too slow and drifting at times, 'Laurel' showcases a surprisingly lower vocal range for Alison, with a very film-noir style.
However, it's the final track, 'Clay', which best delivers on the album's central premise. Based on a real love letter written from one World War II soldier to another, 'Clay' may not be Goldfrapp's best work, but it's certainly one of their most personal. Hearing "We only wanted to love" or "The Iron Sky / Turning in the looking glass" against the stirring orchestration is beautifully poignant. But, as a painful reminder to its context, and that Goldfrapp are not one for happy endings, the song and album come to a sudden halt. Though it might pass by some, for those willing to get lost in its stories over the autumn months, Tales of Us is an incredibly rewarding experience.