Seventh Tree unveils an Alison Goldfrapp quite different to the one we saw on her career highpoint to date, 2005's Supernature. Whereas that album was grandiose, glammy, and almost aggressive in its brash, thrusting sexuality, Goldfrapp's fourth album is no less sensual, but rather more subtle in its approach. Recorded with longtime collaborator Will Gregory out in rural Somerset, Seventh Tree feels like an attempt to fuse the pagan folk of cult English horror classic The Wicker Man to a lush backdrop of woozy electronics and a restrained orchestral sweep reminiscent of '70s-era Serge Gainsbourg. In practise, this means much of Seventh Tree goes where earlier Gainsbourg disciples such as Air have gone before: chilled-out, soporific electronica with a light organic edge. Luckily, Goldfrapp remains a compelling enough figure to keep matters on the right side of ethereal: the gorgeous "Clowns" imagines the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser guesting on some long-forgotten Nick Drake out-take, rustic folk with an all-but-indecipherable vocal and an undercurrent of desolation, while "A&E" shows Goldfrapp's pop urge has not deserted her, uplifting electronica with a warm, bucolic twist. --Louis Pattison
Review by Heather Phares
After spending years on the dancefloor with Black Cherry and Supernature, Goldfrapp takes a breather with The Seventh Tree. Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory slow down the beats and break out the acoustic guitars on a set of songs that suggest chilling out in a field during a hazy, watercolor summer; this is music for after the party, not after-parties. "Clowns" opens the album with finger-picked acoustic guitar, birdsongs, and Allison's nearly wordless vocalizing, making a statement that's bold because it's so gentle -- the effect is like stepping out into a sunny morning after spending all night in a club. At first, it's a shock, and then it feels great. Avoiding the glammy dance-pop of the duo's previous two albums is a bit of a risk, since Goldfrapp could probably make endless variations on "Ooh La La" and still have plenty of fans. However, The Seventh Tree isn't so much a radical change for Goldfrapp as it is a shift in focus; even if it doesn't sound glam, it sounds glamorous. Sonic luxury has been the only constant in the duo's sound, from Felt Mountain's darkly lavish soundscapes to Black Cherry and Supernature's decadent dance hits, and there's plenty of it here, too. This is not Goldfrapp Unplugged, although acoustic guitars and strings waft in and out of the album effortlessly -- if anything, The Seventh Tree's electro hippie-chic is the duo's most polished and luxe work yet. "Little Bird"'s psychedelic trip-hop builds to a majesty that recalls "Strawberry Fields Forever," buoyed by layer upon layer of guitar, vocals, sparkling synths, and a massive, rolling bassline. "Caravan Girl" is some of Goldfrapp's finest escapist pop, capturing the irresistible appeal of running away with big hooks and an even bigger Wall of Sounds backing them up. Allison uses her voice more beautifully and expressively than she has since Felt Mountain, especially on "Eat Yourself" and the Air-esque "Cologne Cerrone Houdini," where her upper register shines. Goldfrapp expands their emotional palette as well as their musical one on The Seventh Tree, digging deeper into the vulnerable territory they explored with Supernature's "Number One." On "Monster Love" and "A&E," where Allison confesses "think I want you still, but it may be pills at work," the duo pulls off the confessional, folktronic singer/songwriter style with more flair than their peers. "Happiness," on the other hand, offers some surprisingly cheeky irony, pondering how to find "real love" (answer: "donate all your money") while coming across like a cheery cult anthem about trading your worldly possessions for colorful robes. With all the sounds and feelings The Seventh Tree explores, it's clear that Goldfrapp doesn't miss the style the pair perfected on their last two albums, nor should they -- this is some of their most varied, balanced, and satisfying work.
One thing writers often don't give musicians enough credit for is the rationale for their restlessness. If a well-known pop artist alters their style-- especially if it deviates from a sound that made them a commercial success-- there's often this urge to label the musician as bored and impulsive, chasing new trends or jumping off bandwagons as if holding off stagnancy is their only motivation to test their creativity. It can be upsetting to longtime fans, but often times the only real hurdle to these new directions is unfamiliarity-- just look at Goldfrapp, who startled their earliest fans by shifting from the surrealistic elegance of their 2000 orchestral-pop debut Felt Mountain to a beat-heavy mid-decade run at the dance charts. With two hard-to-top electro-pop albums under their belts-- 2003's Black Cherry and 2005's Supernature-- it's safe to assume that Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory are perfectly happy with getting some closure on what they've accomplished in the last few years and are moving on to something else out of a feeling more substantial than impatience. It was unprecedented enough that a group which started out trafficking in cabaret eeriness and cinematic grandiosity would ease so naturally into club-pop, so it's not out of the question that dialing back to pastoral, folksy indie-electronica would unearth another side of a duo that was shaping up to be one of the decade's most versatile.
So how could a group that's already established success with slow, lush ballads-- think 2000's "Pilots", 2003's "Forever", or 2005's "You Never Know"-- release an album filled with a whole bunch of uncompelling attempts at them? It could be because Goldfrapp's best songs, regardless of how downbeat they were, at least had something to grab the ear melodically, where most of the material on Seventh Tree focuses more on subtle, slow-moving ambience. This ambience is often so subtle and slow-moving it doesn't seem to go anywhere, and it coasts on some frothy sense of pleasantness that evaporates the moment the song ends. Like the bulk of the album, there's a certain beauty in opener "Clowns", but it's an empty one-- more lullaby than pop song, it's symptomatic of what happens when you take all the grandeur out of big sweeping melodies.
Other songs attempt to use these flimsy backdrops to build up to big, epic crescendos-- the Nick Mason drums cutting into the narcoleptic Air-circa-Virgin Suicides swoon in "Little Bird"; the latter-day Moby bombast that rears its head in the second half of "A&E"'s Sarah McLachlan-isms-- and it feels false and gratuitous, as if it were the only way to maintain any actual momentum. At its best-- the desolation of "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" and "Some People", which inject the ambience with a much-needed eeriness-- this stuff's fairly soothing; at its worst it evokes that old "Mystery Science Theater 3000" bit about the two-note chords of New Age music: "Put your finger down here...now put another finger down...now hold it down for an hour...now hold it down 'til you get a record contract from Windham Hill." At least "Caravan Girl" provides a nice, upbeat Neu!-meets-ABBA distraction, but it's too little too late.
All of Gregory's codeine melodies would be a lot more salvageable, however, if Alison undercut it with the trademark strengths of her voice. It's what made the Marlene Dietrich mood of Felt Mountain so intriguingly weird, while Black Cherry and Supernature would have simply been slightly-above-par electro-glam ephemera without her Kylie-gone-sinister purr. But she's not assertive or seductive or mysterious here; what she's offering is the kind of mannered, chirpy delicacy you could get from any number of indie-folk and adult contemporary artists piped through off-brand coffeehouses everywhere. There's still some interesting dissonance in hearing this fragile version of Goldfrapp's voice wrap around lyrics that occasionally match the ominous nature of her older songs; "A&E", shallow as it sounds, hints at a pill overdose.
But with all the excitement and decadence drained out of the music and the voice, the trite themes stand out a bit more clearly: you can be happy if you give money to people who promise to make your life better ("Happiness"); birds have wings and are free ("Little Bird"). That's assuming you can understand Goldfrapp's lyrics in the first place, since she mumbles incoherently and is muffled under a swampy mix through half the record, which only highlights the feeling of sleepy halfheartedness. Even if Seventh Tree is sonic dishwater, I'll give Goldfrapp enough credit to assume that this isn't change for its own sake, that the motivation for this album's tone wasn't simply a fatigued boredom with their old sound. It's just too bad most listeners won't be able to say the same about their own reactions to this new one.
-Nate Patrin, February 25, 2008