Listening to Music Again
March 28, 2010
The last time I paid serious attention to popular music was in high school and college. Even then it was by osmosis – what I heard on Top 40, stuff my sister sent my way, tunes played at parties and clubs. Then came a life of travel, living overseas, work, family, and I became unplugged from the popular music scene. The unsubtle, aggressive boom of hip hop and plastic polish of the pop that I heard wafting from passing cars did not draw me in. I wasn’t going to wallow in nostalgia either — didn’t want to become one of those fogeys who go on about the old days. I subscribed in theory to the notion that the great thing about pop music is that it continually regenerates itself, but the new sounded not enough different from the old, simply not worth the effort.
But now I have drunk from the bottle of new music uncorked by Adam Lambert and found myself… soaked. Perhaps my soul was thirstier than I had realized, after parched decades of having my radio dial frozen to NPR stations. Nothing against NPR – I remain a loyal supporter and tune in daily, but it feels like eating my vegetables (again, nothing wrong with that; I’m a proponent of Michael Pollen’s rules of eating). Rarely did a broadcast make me giddy with the kind of inebriating pleasure that is being evoked by some of the music I am discovering now.
Then Adam Lambert showed up in my life and because he seems to have a discerning ear, I decided to check out the artists he mentioned. They are always interesting, and among them are treasures, artists who engage my emotions with texture, complexity and freshness that give me hope for the future of pop culture.
My current pop music trinity is comprised of Muse, Lady Gaga and Goldfrapp (and Adam, goes without saying!). Of these, Goldfrapp is the most compelling. Their just-released album, Head First, is looping on my iPod. A British duo formed in 1999 by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, this hemi-eponymous band has developed a sound that manages the feat of being both distinctive and astonishingly diverse. It is always recognizable but never predictable.
Alison Goldfrapp’s soprano is unlike any I’ve heard – breathy, delicate, birdlike, louche, earthy and otherworldly. She enuniciates her words as though they were in another language, sculpted yet slurred and incomprehensible like colors bleeding into one another in a Helen Frankenthaler painting. Her quicksilver voice slips and slides around the synth instrumentation and rhythmic gears of the songs.
Goldfrapp’s five CDs are exhilarating in their range. Containing a wealth of music shimmering with layers – lust, sensuality, intelligence, hope and irony – they are not going to be crammed into a box. Felt Mountain (2002) is a marvel of swirling, dreamy electronica, mystical, menacing and elegant. The track “Utopia” has to rank among the most seductive songs every devised. Black Cherry (2004) is full of fabulous, sinuous dance tunes like “Twist” and “Strict Machine”, and Supernature (2006) goes full-out nouveau glam, fresh, ecstatic and irresistible. Seventh Tree (2008) takes a breather with downtempo, earthy acoustic melodies, delicate, nature-infused sound poems, contemplative and troubled. “A&E” is a disarming masterpiece about attempted suicide.
Head First (2010), released last week, is an album that is simultaneously retro and futuristic. The CD cover shows Alison Goldfrapp’s face floating against a cerulean sky strewn with rose-gold cumulus clouds. Inside, she is depicted full length garbed in an astronaut’s jumpsuit – in bubblegum pink, her signature nimbus of blonde hair framing her enormous eyes. Hers is a face of porcelain beauty with a feline inscrutability and cunning. She strides forward atop satiny blue platform boots – no gravity here to worry about. She is a Power Puff girl for adults.
Head First is filled with driving disco beats and lush sonic beauty paired with lyrics of anomie and longing. The songs are stretched taut between life, love and the existential void. The album launches strongly with three buoyant disco anthems with rousing choruses, “Rocket”, “Believer” and “Alive”. A minor key intrudes with the spacey “Dreaming”, and then we arrive at the luminous “Head First” – a place of beauty and light, dreams and emptiness. The lyrics are full of holes, like her breathy voice – voids into which emotion floods. I may be projecting the shadows flitting across my psyche here, but this album’s narrative arc evokes for me the journey across the divide, the apex of the parabola of life, when your upward launch stalls out, there is a moment of being gravity free, before the descent.
A moment to express some indignation here. According to a recent Irish Independent article, “Obsessed with hyping the next hot young thing — ie, another female singer-songwriter with nice hair — BBC Radio One, Britain’s pre-eminent ‘yoof’ station, has declined to playlist Goldfrapp’s comeback single, Rocket. Frankly, it’s a bit of a slap in the face. Particularly when you consider the rumours that the BBC judged the duo too old for the station.” I am disgusted with the radio producers, and skeptical that young music listeners base their choices on the artists’ age over their talent. That might be true where talent is not on display, but when you have artists of such abundant skills, music should know no age boundaries. (I base my hypothesis on the sparse data of my teenage daughter and her friends, who absorb and enjoy music from every era of the past half century.)
Goldfrapp’s is the sexiest sound in modern popular music, especially because it isn’t in-your-face sex. It’s subtle, nuanced, many-layered, sensual, suggestive, seductive and frankly beautiful. The songs are exquisitely crafted, rubies and sapphires to the cubic zirconium of most pop Top 40.
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Postscript: I won’t even go into Goldfrapp’s fabulous videos here (maybe in the future), save to say that I think they are among the most cutting-edge out there, so savagely twisted, whimsical, layered and cypherlike – the fount from which all others, including the redoubtable Gaga, drink. A sampling is offered here for your exploration:
“Alive” – Adam tweeted about this one: Goldfrapp’s video for ALIVE is hilarious. CAMP so often goes over the general public’s head… so sad… video put a huge grin on my face
Update 10-10-10: Adam tweeted: Goldfrapp’s “Hairy Trees” Always relaxes me and transports me to another world. Listen to it on headphones and close your eyes. Got me poking around YouTube for new Goldfrapp vids and I came across this fabulous interview from 2006 about Supernature, which Adam has said is his favorite album, the one he’d take to a desert island. “Nature, disco and pagan nature stuff” – I see why Adam connects so much with them.