At its best, Goldfrapp’s new album “Seventh Tree” will transport you to a distant land of misty green pastures, populated by ghostly spirits and forest nymphs that dreamily haunt the thickets. At its worst, “Seventh Tree” will transport you to a very nearby land of prime-time teen dramas, populated by wistful saps who stand idly daydreaming on their boats in the middle of their backyard lakes. Sadly, the album tends toward the latter.
As a retreat from the slightly disturbing trip hop of “Black Cherry” and the darkly sexual club-pop of “Supernature,” the often folksy “Seventh Tree” is not such a surprising departure for a band that has done all of its recording at their home in the idyllic English countryside of Somerset. It was only a matter of time, really, before these surroundings would infiltrate their sound, and in many ways the result is a fantastic and mythical retreat — when done correctly.
To achieve the sense of wonderment required for this romantic escape, the album must first suspend disbelief. This is a sensitive task that the band adeptly handles on the opening track, “Clowns.” The gentle guitar that ever-so-slowly starts the song develops into a sort of cascade that is well-suited to Alison Goldfrapp’s harping vocals. Her otherworldly voice remains elusive as it drifts and meanders around the sweeping orchestral accompaniment. This is, effectively, the opening of the closet to Narnia or the crossing of the threshold into Rivendell (Tolkien’s elfish homeland. I Wikipedia-ed it).
The next song, “Little Bird,” follows in perfect harmony, building on the discovery of the first. Another band might now lead into pastoral serenity and true folksy revelry, tambourines galore, but Goldfrapp isn’t that band. Instead, Alison leads the way with distant, breathy vocals that evoke a mystically fanciful but decidedly off-kilter ambience. Shrouded in this mystery, she is backed by a repeating tritonal riff. It sounds as much like a chanced-upon alien Morse code as it does like music. This enigmatic quality finally erupts towards the end: the song is overtaken by a percussive breakdown, while Allison’s voice swirls, psychedelically, into and out of focus.
After building this otherworld the band fails to properly explore it, succumbing instead to what can be clinically diagnosed as the Sarah McLachlan Syndrome, or SMS for short. Suffering from this severe and surprising case of SMS, Goldfrapp trades the haunting possibilities that were unlocked in the first two tracks for a disappointing and wistful banality that is most egregious on the songs “Road to Somewhere” and the single “A&E.”
Like a more ethereal version of a Dido track, “Road to Somewhere” fails predominately in that it lacks the mysterious enchantment suggested by the first two songs. Where “Little Bird” lost itself to a fantasy world of ethereal spirits, “Road to Somewhere” loses itself to a more commonplace restlessness that fails to captivate in the same way. The difference can be plainly seen in the lyrics, dissipating the mysterious capabilities of Alison’s siren vocal range, “Listen to the radio / like a friend, that guides me / playing out every song, we used to like.” The rest of the song is grounded in this same mundane melodrama. It is a disappointing abandonment of a unique fantasy world that has been traded for a generically bland, WB-inspired “Somewhere.”
In the past, Goldfrapp has always evoked an element of the surreal, and so tracks like these are difficult to make sense of and account for. The single “A&E,” especially, just sounds like a different band entirely. It lacks any trace of Goldfrapp’s power of lyrical abstraction as Alison sings, “Do you really want to know how I was dancing on the floor / I was trying to phone you while I was crawling out the door.” It is not surprising, necessarily, that Goldfrapp has gone for a folksy approach, but it is surprising that it conforms to such generic standards of adolescent vulnerability, that lonely girl in the backless dress, crying and feeling blue.
While the majority of the album follows suit with the single, one can always take solace in the moments of inspiration that prove what the album could have been. “Eat Yourself,” for example, combines Alison’s eerie vocals with a consoling, Nick-Drake-inspired guitar part to great success. The song then builds with a layering of strings, bass, and synths that transport the listener to a ghostly Goldfrapp imagining of the European countryside. Sadly, the rest of the album doesn’t live up to this atmospheric ambition.