Over the past decade, we’ve seen electronic duo Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory tackling various eras in music with their distinct blend of stellar production prowess and icy reserve. There was the club-thumping ’70s-glam revival of Supernature, the film-noir-inspired trip-hop landscapes of Felt Mountain, and the psychedelic sunshine-pop and flower-power folk of 2008’s wonderful Seventh Tree. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Goldfrapp has chosen the ’80s as its latest decade to don. Unfortunately, Head First opts too much for Olivia Newton-John circa Xanadu and not enough for Laurie Anderson’s Big Science.
Opening with synths that reek of Van Halen’s “Jump,” “Rocket” takes some getting used to. Not the arbitrary ode to rockets it may appear to be, “Rocket” instead finds Alison Goldfrapp telling a former lover who snowed her (“I still want to know how she got in the door uninvited”) that she’ll be launching him via said rocket to a place where he’s “never coming back.” It makes for a fun, anthemic kiss-off, complete with leg warmers and newly crimped bangs. But, like much of Head First, it’s a case of too much style, not enough substance. And that’s a first for this duo.
Following in this vein, “Believer” serves as a prime example of Goldfrapp’s studio wizardry and flawless production superceding the actual song’s greatness. The biggest offender, “Alive,” is too reminiscent of prior ’80s genre-specific re-hashers Scissor Sisters, ultimately failing to ignite the stadium-sized anthem it strives for.
It’s frustrating, then, the three of the best tracks come at the end of the album. “Hunt” is provocative and modern, and it provides an otherworldly soundscape complete with looped vocal rhythm patterns and pristine electronic flourishes. “Shiny and Warm” harks back to 2003’s “Satin Chic” and improves upon its rushed four-four stomp with irresistible swagger, while album closer “Voicething” finds Alison’s vocals — a series of pants, hums, barks, and coos — assembled intricately over a tapped-out synth line. It echoes some of the ’80s greatest visionary composers, from Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass to Kate Bush, ending the album with the nagging feeling that this could have been such a better album.