Here's a theory, based in part on personal experience: over the course of doing press for 2000's Felt Mountain
, Alison Goldfrapp grew so tired of being asked about her fascination with the Weimar Republic that she resolved to completely change her style. She abandoned her snug Austrian Lolita gear and kinky stewardess ensembles for wispy, pedophile-baiting new wave club-kid togs (anyone else got the feeling that Ms. Goldfrapp was one of those little girls who loved showing her fancy knickers to everyone she met?), and, with partner Will Gregory, took a musical about-face, dumping the majority of Felt Mountain
's sweeping John Barryisms in favor of a creepy, skeletal electro sound. If you can imagine Gary Numan, Prince and William Orbit teaming up to write and produce a record for Donna Summer, little on Black Cherry
will surprise you.
It's certainly a dramatic stylistic shift, and at first it seems a little arrogant -- as if Goldfrapp has blithely assumed that the thing listeners loved most about her debut was her voice, and we can do without the rest. Or perhaps that's the sort of brazen stylistic leap that more artists should make. Regardless, you're within your rights to feel a bit confused during "Crystalline Green" -- its throbbing synths and Vanity 6-style harmonies seem better suited to a sweaty strip club than an isolated Bavarian chalet. Newly-minted single "Train", which follows, skews a bit campier, with droning electro-cabaret keyboards and a mid-tempo shuffle beat borrowed from Soft Cell's Greatest Hits.
If the first few electro tracks don't get your pulse racing, skip ahead to "Twist" to hear Goldfrapp knock one out of the park. Alison is in full-on disco diva mode; if you can listen without imagining outrageous bump-and-grind choreography or a strobe-intensive light show, you're probably still breaking in your first driver's license. The sublimely stunning "Strict Machine" follows, its swaggering "I Feel Love" disco vibe first enhanced, then overdriven, then completely overrun by glittering synth accents, cymbal crashes, bone-rattling bass burble and a keyboard melody so twankily analog it'd make Cabaret Voltaire cry. The whole pervy cyborg S&M angle doesn't hurt either. And if you love the living hell out of "Strict Machine", you're in luck -- closer "Slippage" is more or less the same song, but slower and with a few notes transposed.
If Black Cherry's first few tunes leave you longing for "classic" Goldfrapp, take heart -- the album's midsection is a tasty pocket of more familiar sounds. Nothing here quite achieves Felt Mountain-scale bombast, but the title track plays as a less expansive "Pilots" with an '80s R&B edge and Casio sampler accents, and "Deep Honey" and "Hairy Trees" recall the debut's more hypnotic moments.
That said, "Tiptoe" is the disc's absolute high point, sublimely combining Goldfrapp old and new. In the verse, we get a herky-jerky, funk-riddled workout, full of blips and breathy vocals; in the chorus, we're treated to a sweeping, cinematic expanse, dreamy and languorous, liberally coated with sugar-sweet singing and backed by bilious synth-blorts. And then, after the chorus, there's an utterly magnificent bridge -- a jaw-droppingly massive faux didgeridoo drone, twittering robot effects and the shrill whizzing whistle of a synthesized drill. Listening to this bit on a decent stereo is like going over the edge of a ten-storey rollercoaster drop -- no matter how many times you do it, it'll take your breath away.
Black Cherry is, without doubt, a "difficult" second album, destined to lose Goldfrapp and Gregory some of their Felt Mountain fans. It doesn't deliver on Felt Mountain's promise, but neither does it abandon or dismiss that album's heady aesthetic. More than anything, it sends a message: expect change, and expect challenges. Goldfrapp and Gregory are asserting a creative agenda more complex and less accessible than we may have expected, and in the long run that can only be a good thing.
One final note: I usually prefer to leave cover-art commentary to other, coarser online magazines, but Black Cherry's bizarre DIY cut-and-paste disaster requires a stern dressing-down. Indeed, I initially assumed that it was an ill-considered, hurriedly-assembled pre-release mock-up. It's not, though -- it's the finished piece. Gaaah. Who in the name of all that's holy thought that this ham-fisted eighties zine-art pastiche looked good, or even satisfyingly bad? The only place an album cover like Black Cherry's would look appropriate would be on the front page of a newspaper, opposite an article headlined "Four Killed in Art Department Shooting Spree". Cheap inkjet technology has made it possible for us all to make our own album art; please avail yourself of this opportunity, then destroy the originals.