Tales of Us, Goldfrapp’s latest album, shrouds itself in atmosphere before it even starts. The cover looks like a noir, the tracklisting like a particularly arty short story collection, one name per tale. The album begins in an atmospheric swirl, but not as conspicuous-consumption grandstanding (seen too often this year, Random Access Memories’ luxe guitars and The 20/20 Experience’s identikit cinema standing out) The lead single, “Drew,” exists, but for all its string-laden pomp it’s diffident rather than showy, a story that doesn’t hook you so much as assume you’ll approach it then hook yourself. The album is immediate, in the sense that oncoming storm clouds are immediate -- yet it makes an art of the unapproachable.
In 2013, being unapproachable is a little perverse. Tales of Us isn’t without peers this year -- it’s a lot like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away, another album of atmospherics, or Laura Marling’s Once I Was an Eagle, another album of stories -- nor is it an anomaly in Goldfrapp’s discography. Imagine Felt Mountain’s “Lovely Head” if it had lilts with its descants, or Seventh Tree’s “Clowns” stretched until its peaks and lulls fit a whole album. And it fits Goldfrapp’s album pattern well enough, a slower, gentler counterpart to Head First’s ‘80s pop rush, which was a commercial counterpart to pastoral Seventh Tree and so forth.
But Tales of Us is almost defiantly anti-commercial, not only in sound but how it shuns every way Goldfrapp could recapture this year’s zeitgeist. Goldfrapp could have easily gone all-out ‘80s revival (Head First was about halfway-out, which the band's attributed to deadline crunch; they’ve since jumped labels), or for that matter all-out electro again; there’s a steeliness to Supernature that eludes a lot of the more callow, carefree dance-pop acts today. They could have gone traditional folk, as opposed to the heady cinematic sort here. Even Alison Goldfrapp’s trip-hop past would be oddly timely in 2013, with so much chillout rebranded as chillwave, so many bands muddying up Portishead moods (sometimes literally); her old collaborator Tricky released an album this year, even. Instead, Tales of Us is a concept album in a time not particularly friendly to concept albums -- the worst case being The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, another dense, literary-rich album that’s been reduced to a social justice sticker. It requires time -- perhaps literally, as every track is bound to reverberate more once autumn sets in -- and openness. Alison Goldfrapp, in interviews (Will Gregory never gave many interviews), describes it as a smaller, slower thing, the impassioned result of losing a year to Gothic novels and old movies. Tales of Us asks the listener to do the same.
It asks quite a bit of research from the listener as well. “Annabel” is from Canadian author Kathleen Winter’s novel of the same name, and “Laurel” is the fearful, enthralled heroine from the Dorothy B. Hughes book (and, later, Humphrey Bogart noir) "In a Lonely Place." Not all the counterparts are this literal, sometimes creative license is taken a little (the soldier from “Clay” exists, by a different name), sometimes taken a lot. (Five Tales of Us tracks are accompanied by short films; those, too, can only enhance the experience, and if any album merits them it’s this.) But Tales of Us stands alone regardless, because Tales of Us adapts its source material as vignettes, pieces and traces of tales -- “little moments of time,” in Goldfrapp’s words, suspended in enough atmospherics, enough rolling fog and lamplit nights and cellos, that the rest of the tale almost conjures itself.
The results are haunting. “Jo” takes the twinkling riff from Jacques Brel’s “Ces Gens La,” murmurs a lullaby into it, then slips death into the murmur. (It works best if you pretend ironic lullabies haven’t been overdone.) “Drew” could be, as writer Brad Shoup put it, “a Bond theme for a dying supervillain,” an affair remembered in its most evocative terms, its lemon moons and snow crashes. Some tracks -- the “Ulla”-“Alvar” stretch, particularly -- evoke folklore, others noir. “Laurel” could be the moment before a murder, “Simone” the moment after. The latter -- its particular tale about a mother who’s been with her daughter’s lover -- approaches a bit of a theme: turning relationships, and gender in particular, into psychological brooding. Winter’s "Annabel" is about an intersex child forced by a provincial village to become a boy named Wayne, and Goldfrapp sings the title enough times with enough longing to be a charm. The subject of “Stranger” is its sequel in spirit, its subject “born a mystery,” its melodies their most seductive when wordless.
The album’s not completely off in its own world -- the almost rousing midsections of “Ulla” and “Clay” are concessions to more down-to-earth folk, and halfway through the album they even found a way to get a dance single in anyway: “Thea,” with a beat made of approaching footsteps, instrumentation made of mirages and story made of anticipation. It’s as windswept as anything off Bat for Lashes’ Two Suns -- “Sleep Alone,” say -- and moodier still. (As for its story counterpart, this probably isn’t what Goldfrapp had in mind but I always think of "The Dark Garden" by Margaret Buffie, an atmosphere-choked YA gothic novel with its own haunted Thea.)
What Tales of Us isn’t, deliberately, is fashionable. This is both literal -- Goldfrapp’s finally found a way to get people to stop talking about Alison Goldfrapp’s albums, and thinking about how the band inspired the likes of Lady Gaga -- and metaphorical. Musically, Tales of Us has more in common with psych-thriller scores and New Age (of the Miriam Stockley as opposed to the Imagine Dragons variety) than anything stylish. Lyrically everything is melodramatic, and those expecting Supernature takes on sex with a coquettish wink or brazen come-on rather than Child-ballad palpitation or Freudian death drives will naturally be disappointed. But Tales of Us never makes “melodrama” seem like a pejorative. This is music to chill the air, to imagine moods where they weren’t before. It’s perhaps the perfect autumn album (yes, already, and yes, in a season where Mazzy Star among others has albums due). All it needs is time.