Monday, April 24, 2017

album review: 'silver eye' by goldfrapp

I have a weird relationship with electronic-leaning dance pop. I don't dislike it by any stretch, but I'll be the first to admit that unless the hooks are top of the line, I don't really gravitate to it in the same way as I might country or folk or hip-hop or indie rock that aim for tighter lyricism, or subgenres within metal or electronic music where lyrics are perfunctory in comparison with musical experimentation or raw power.

What this means is that outside of what I cover on the pop charts, I don't tend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the type of pop that's more likely to chart on the dance charts first, especially if they originate in the UK and aren't strictly in the synth or indie-pop spheres. In other words, it was a real learning experience digging into Goldfrapp, an English electronic duo with whom I had only ever heard in passing - it's not like they ever had a significant impact on the Hot 100. Beginning around the turn of the millennium, they may have drawn on trip-hop, but they took their electronic style across a good half dozen genres over the course of the next decade, from synthpop and glam rock to ambient tones and even noir cabaret, blending retro glam with new, sleek electronic touches. And yet while I found a fair number of their singles enjoyable with Allison Goldfrapp's sensuous cooing set against sharper electronic grooves, I'd also say they're the definition of a singles act for me, as the albums could definitely drag, never quite being sharp enough in the writing or experimentation to stay ahead of the curve. And sure, that wasn't an issue when the most they were compared against was Portishead in the early 2000s, but by the time this brand of electronic dance pop dominated around the turn of the decade, it felt like Goldfrapp was playing catchup again. So after making somewhat of a return to basics with Tales Of Us that got the lukewarm reception it deserved, they did the next best thing: took four years off, and came back with a record that promised to synthesize all of their influences into a new electro-pop record. And hell, given the dreary mess that currently comprises modern pop on the Hot 100, I could use a spark of life: so does Goldfrapp pull it off on Silver Eye?

Honestly, I have nothing here, folks. And that is a little alarming because in going through Goldfrapp's discography I have found individual songs that I like and I'm a fan of synthpop - but I just could not get into this project. I said earlier that Goldfrapp were a singles group, but that would imply I could find individual songs that did something for me, and I struggled a lot with that here. Now that's not saying the record is bad - it's listenable, I somewhat understand its appeal - but it does nothing for me on a deeper level, and while there's a part of me that's disappointed, I'm not all that surprised either.

So let's start with the production and instrumentation, where I think something could have been salvaged at some point here. Goldfrapp certainly weren't kidding when they said they were looking to pour all of their influences into this project, because having gone through their back catalog, I can definitely see elements from across their entire career. The beats are blocky and sharp and a little more abrasive, calling back to their early records, but the blurry touches of ambient music recall more of their midperiod work - enhanced by some added production from The Haxan Cloak - all while Alison Goldfrapp's vocals have the hushed yet languid feel of the more acoustic-leaning folk material that recalls touches of new age mysticism. And to be blunt, it's a weird mix - the beats don't have the same tempo or groove to keep up the momentum that the synth melodies barely hold, and yet they've got enough of a defined edge that they feel oddly out-of-place against Goldfrapp's crooning, stiffer than they should be for a record trying to be this meditative. And yet the more listens I gave the album the more I was convinced it should be weirder than it is - in terms of experimental pop or electronic music, this is not challenging or pushing any boundaries, trying to thread a needle between sharp edged dance beats and distortion that is rarely matched by the vocals, the vocal filters, or any sense of real intensity. Take the opener 'Anymore' - it's a hookup track with a sharper drumline against warbles of distorted, gurgling synth and glitchy effects, and it's about the furthest thing from sexy. 'Systemagic' is even stiffer, but at least it's trying to be a more rigid, borderine industrial tune in its subject matter, even if I don't think it matches Goldfrapp's crooning at all. And yet that's before we hit 'Faux Suede Drifter', where the momentum crashes into a brick wall and we get these extended ambient synth tracks that all run long and don't do anything for me whatsoever. And again, it's not saying this record can't pull together some tightness: 'Become The One' is just hollow, grimy, and mechanical enough from the vocal filters to the fluttery fragments of vocals to pick up a little bounce, 'Everything Is Never Enough' has enough melodic sparkle in the keys against the breakbeat and heavier multi-tracking on the hook to have some swell in an early 80s synthpop style, and the increasing layers on 'Moon In Your Mouth' kind of works almost through rendering the beat perfunctory... which is pretty much the opposite approach for 'Ocean', which is easily the most industrial Goldfrapp have ever been and had some real promise if it didn't feel the need to collapse in on itself multiple times instead of paying off its buildup - and that's before you consider that it's the closing track!

But fine, maybe the lyrics managed to pull it together? Well, kind of ironic that I phrased the last sentence like that, because if I was to stretch for a theme of this album, it would be bringing things together, fusions and combinations to bring balance, even anthromorphism. And it seems to approach this on a very elemental, primordial level - a fusion not just of things but ideas to hit some sort of mystic tranquility. And if this sounds like I'm talking out of my ass, it's because I can't stand this style of new age, pseudo-spiritual writing, especially when it is as underwritten as it is here. This lyrical style can kind of work for pop music, but this record doesn't have the structure or tightness, even in the more hook-driven industrial moments, so what it leads to are meandering tracks where there's a lot of basic, straightforward language that's supposed to pick up greater significance thanks to the vibe, and it's not clicking for me whatsoever. It feels oddly passive, not a record that is actively engaging with its subject matter or looking to make much of a point, even if some individual songs manage to connect on a certain minimalist level. 'Become The One' is the easiest example - basically as a message of hope to trans people finding their gender identity, whatever that might be - and 'Everything Is Never Enough' is very much about human overconsumption, but that song also leads to a weird shift in the mood on the second half of this record. To be blunt, if this record was trying to be meditative and find balance, the second half is when frustration leaks through that it's not quite working or won't last. 'Beast Between Two Worlds' seems to have the chase that never connects, 'Moon In Your Mouth' seems acutely aware its connection is temporary, and then 'Ocean' ends the record on a remarkably sour note - a connection that failed, leaving bitterness and regret that mistakes were made. And sure, there's symbolism that runs through these songs, but it doesn't really add up - it doesn't so much feel deep as it does disconnected and scattershot. 

But in the end... look, I'll accept this just isn't for me, but at the same time I wouldn't call this record all that strong or interesting. I've seen reviews praising the creation of more spacious, sweeping atmosphere, but they're still opting to fill that atmosphere with beats, glitchy synth and tunes that are nowhere close to their best or feel all that original. Sure, it's direct in its lyrical style, but if you don't use that directness to say anything concrete, you're going to lose a lot of the impact - acts like Swans have used even more blunt, straightforward language in the past, but the instrumental swell and raw power translated to the message, whereas I'd be hardpressed to find it here. Listless but stiff, more oblique than outright weird in a compelling way, and nowhere close to as catchy while feeling a lot longer than it should, I'm thinking a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation for fans. I'll give points for a few isolated moments of strength, but a lot of this record feels like montage music for nightclubs out of my tax bracket, moody and tasteful without actually challenging the audience or really inspiring much dancing. And compared to their previous work... again, singles act. I'll take 'Ocean' and move on.

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