Goldfrapp have always exhibited the ability to slip in and out of the mainstream like a slinky musical sleuth. Despite their unabashedly populist inclinations, they are also capable of sating the ever-hungry appetites of listeners with more refined, indie-typical sensibilities. It's a career that darts with a distinct ambidextrous gaiety from extroverted, radio-friendly dance and fuzzy electronica, towards the insular, more inward-focused tendencies constitutive of their more stripped back records. Tales of Us finds itself firmly in the latter camp, alongside the stark noughties Gothic of their debut album, Felt Mountain, and 2008's folky, light and languid offering, Seventh Tree.
On Tales of Us these musical crossover points become entangled. We have a streamlined, overly polished sound which envelopes a collection of subdued, low-key songs which really could do with having some of their original jagged edges left intact. The album is awash with cinematic strings and electronic embellishments, serving to create a wide-scope, panoramic sound for a collection of songs which present themselves as simple vignettes, named as they are after a group of individual characters. All of this serves only to amplify a minimalist approach. Whilst 2000's Felt Mountain captured a distinctive and effective Lynchian mystique, 2013's Tales of Us attempts to channel a similar mood, although its brush strokes are much broader and, consequently, less effective. Think, god forbid, of a 2013 version of "Twin Peaks," glossed up for the full glory of HD and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Memorable songs are entirely lacking on the album, and Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp seem so intent on aiming for the subtle that they misjudge things altogether. Part of the innate beauty and strangeness of the experience of listening to music is how, after those first initial listens, melody lines and musical rhythms seem to gestate in the sub conscious, as the business of life continues around us. Accordingly, you expect these songs to bloom into a range of affecting, fully-fledged songs, ready to be emotionally imprinted by a gamut of life experiences, as they move away from abstract notions of ownership in the public domain to even more abstract notions of individual, interpersonal value. Yet, disappointingly, much of the songs on Tales of Us remain as estranged, disconnected and unaffecting as they did on those first few initial listens. It might even take a course of extensive hypnotherapy sessions to rouse a cognitive recall of the plain-sounding hooklessness of songs such as “Simone” or “Clay”.
The album's better moments include the soothing melancholia of “Annabel” and the epic sadness of “Stranger.” Both songs are on a par with the very best of their catalogue, although are likely to sink without much of a trace on those inevitably glitzy best of compilations and career retrospectives. Tales of Us is not a bad record, although it is a marked slump for one of the more interesting and idiosyncratic acts of the past decade and, as temporal pretensions allow it, the century.