Goldfrapp‘s fourth album Seventh Tree marks a stark contrast with its two predecessors. Gone are the electrostomps of Supernature‘s Ooh La La and Black Cherry‘s Twist, making way for a decidedly English fusion of folk, psychedelia and filmscores-in-waiting that harks back to the debut album Felt Mountain.
It was appropriate then that Alison Goldfrapp returned to the Union Chapel, where she showcased that record back in 2001, to unveil the new material in a live setting.
A line of seven white balloons and candles adorn the set, at the centre of which is Alison’s microphone, decorated to look like a maypole. The all-seater audience are silent, reverent even, in a venue that does not allow alcohol to sully the uncomfortable wooden pews but offers rewards of a more spiritual nature.
To the sound of excerpts from The Wicker Man, the 2008 incarnation of Goldfrapp emerges from the chapel’s wings: a string quartet, a harpist, two keyboard players, lead violin, drums, bass and Alison herself. As has been the case for some years now, the other half of the studio operation that is Goldfrapp, Will Gregory, was not amongst them.
They cram on to the small raised stage in front of the imposing pulpit, dressed in white smocks. The principal keyboard player is adorned in white pom-poms on strings. The lead fiddler is in fetching shorts. Only Alison sports colour, turned out in pink flapsy bat wings, long blonde curls and pixie boots. Her costume suggests soft focus – gone are the angular lines of the Supernature tour.
Harking back to 2001, Felt Mountain track Paper Bag opens the set to whoops of recognition. Alison’s diction now, as then, means it’s never completely clear what she’s saying, but the John Barry-esque orchestration and the sounds her unique voice make prove more than enough to get the set off to a flying start. The closing notes, played by Alison on melodica, sound as special now as they did first time round.
Paper Bag proves to be one of very few early songs aired tonight. Utopia, also from Felt Mountain and with Alison’s operatic voice unleashed to the chapel ceiling, gets more whoops, but this hour-long set is about showcasing the new material. Accordingly nothing from Black Cherry is played and only Number 1 from Supernature makes the cut, an incongruous keytar trading places with the lead fiddle for the set’s one jarring moment.
Seventh Tree’s lead single A&E is as striking live as it is on record, the band’s most radio-friendly piece of music yet but none the less lovely for it. Eat Yourself, with its unexpected change of melody three minutes in, is by contrast a beguiling trip to somewhere far more ethereal.
Five songs in to the set and at last Alison speaks. “I know I don’t say much, but, well… yeah,” she mutters, to laughter from her adoring flock. Without antlers or theremin, she doesn’t do much either, preferring stillness and a sense of reverence to develop between stage and pews. Green-tinged visuals spin about across the balloons from time to time, but there’s little else to distract the eye from Alison’s face as she sings.
Alison lets it be known that she’s nervous of Clowns, Seventh Tree’s opening track. Her habit of addressing the audience while they’re applauding and cheering means rarely do we hear what she’s saying, but maybe it was something like, “we’ve only rehearsed that once”. If she’d said nothing, it wouldn’t have been at all obvious; it’s a slice of aural gorgeousness, her vocals taking after Cocteau Twins‘ Elizabeth Fraser in levels of unintelligibility. Little Bird, with its prog wig-out ending and whirling accompaniment of visuals, follows a similar vein.
Cologne Cerrone Houdini, with it’s Berlin-recalling synth bass and luxurious sense of space, is surely destined to soundtrack a chocolate advert on TV soon. It’s one of the sexiest pieces of music yet made by a band who are becoming task masters at it. Underlining just how intricate Will Gregory’s arrangements are, on first listen, much of the new album can blow by in cinemascope. But pick apart the constituent pieces and it begins to resemble a work of genius.
Caravan Girl, an uncompromising stomp of a pop tune and the evening’s outright loudest number, gets a big response as the band file off. They return for the new record’s most upbeat moment, Happiness: “How to you get to be happiness, how do you get to find love, real love,” questions Alison repeatedly as the band shamble along with staccato rhythm, a vague oompa feel and euphoria-inducing upwards key changes. The audience is implored to clap along, to stand. They manage the former, if not the latter.
It all ends too soon, of course, as Some People winds the evening down. After it, Alison finally gets ger audience on their feet for a standing ovation, but she’s departed the room by then, as ever leaving them wanting more.