Most current EDM is influenced by a historical timeline that begins with Katy Perry and ends with the latest cruddy Avicii single. So it's nice to have an old-guard pro like Alison Goldfrapp—whose career started when most modern club kids were still in diapers, with appearances on canonical '90s electronica albums by Tricky, Orbital, and Add N to X—still kicking around. Over the last decade, her work with Will Gregory as Goldfrapp has proven that Debbie Harry fronting Kraftwerk is the greatest idea the '70s never had.
Part of Goldfrapp's genius has always been its ability to create torch songs sung through gritted teeth, an undercurrent of anger and loss that separated them from the coked-out glamour of influences like Blondie and T-Rex. Goldfrapp's dance songs were slinky and mean at the same time. It was disco with menace, equally perfect for voguing and slam-dancing. Though their newest, Tales of Us, abandons disco pretty much altogether, that whispered sense of threat is still palpably real. The dance floor isn't just empty; it's burnt to a husk and shrouded in darkness.
“Jo” opens the album sounding like Led Zeppelin's “Battle of Evermore” sung by one of its war widows, with all the horror and grief that suggests. It's autumnal like '60s psychedelic folk (I bet there's at least one Donovan record in Goldfrapp's collection), but with a late-'70s debauched weariness that's giving in to decay. “Annabel” is “Gold Dust Woman” refracted off cracked funhouse mirrors, while “Drew” imagines the soundtrack to The Graduate as written from the perspective of Mrs. Robinson, instead of whiny, self-pitying Benjamin. Even comparably “romantic” tracks like “Ulla” come soaked in dread.
Every song on Tales of Us is slowly twisting scales of acoustic guitar and stark piano (with occasional slightly warped strings providing additional cinematic sweep), with vocals that are simultaneously gorgeous and terrifying. Even on headphones, the lyrics are largely lost within the echo-laden mix like drowning men, and when they can be made out, it's just a phrase here or there. In fact, the only clearly defined phrase of the entire album comes at the midpoint in “Alvar,” and then mainly because it's repeated throughout the song like a clarion: “You better run for your life.”
If Tales of Us has a weakness, it's its tonal consistency. Every song—except for the comparatively bouncy, anomalous “Thea”—is so thick with spectral loneliness and creeping unease that it becomes exhausting to listen to closely. Still, it's a vital change of pace for Alison Goldfrapp, who's made a brilliant career of being the siren of lost souls.