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“I think writing an album is like being lost in a wood,” says Will Gregory. “You’re trying to figure out an interesting path. You don’t know whether it’s going to be a dead end or somewhere interesting and you never know when to stop because around the corner some beautiful vista might open up.”
Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have been finding new paths through the forest since their 2000 debut album Felt Mountain, never going the same way twice. “We’ve never liked repeating ourselves,” says Alison. “Often we react to things we’ve just done. We like the spontaneity of not knowing. It’s only through the process that we start to figure out what it is. The fans who have stuck with us are the ones who embrace that idea and are excited by the thought that they don’t know quite what to expect next.”
If 2013’s Tales of Us, a set of noirish folk fables, roamed the same pastoral landscape as Felt Mountain and Seventh Tree, then Silver Eye (a reference to the moon) belongs to the pulsing, electronic lineage of Black Cherry and Supernature only deeper and darker. The common thread between these two modes, apart from the consistently exquisite arrangements and Alison’s extraordinary voice, is a set of enduring preoccupations, which inform both the lyrics and the visual aesthetic. “Mysticism, ecstasy, ritual, contemplation, metamorphosis, the elemental,” says Alison, who took all of the photographs and creatively directed all artwork visuals. “I’ve realised that there are things I feel passionate about on a deep level and they’re in this record.”
Silver Eye, Goldfrapp’s seventh album, is dance music, which evokes a pagan ritual rather than a club soundtrack. Cold, metallic electronics with a hot current of blood running through them. Cinematic pop music with a twist. A celebration of the thirst for transformation and intense sensation. A 21st century moon dance. It weaves together the two strands of Goldfrapp’s music like never before.
Alison and Will have always enjoyed working with other people. They’ve used talented musicians, programmers and engineers on all of their albums — Alison describes long-time ally Nick Batt as “almost a third member” on Supernature — and in 2014 they worked with director Carrie Cracknell and a 13-woman chorus on the score to the National Theatre’s production of Medea.
On Silver Eye, for the first time, they sought new collaborators as the songs were taking shape. They spent 10 days in Dallas with John Congleton, Grammy-winning producer of St. Vincent, John Grant and Wild Beasts. In London they teamed up with electronic composer Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak. Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams added abstract guitar textures to the eerily beautiful Faux Suede Drifter and Beast That Never Was. Further valuable input came from mix engineer David Wrench and Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, who combed through every version of the insatiable motorik monster Everything Is Never Enough to find the perfect take.
“We wanted to work with other people to help us take it somewhere else,” says Alison. “It was fun and inspiring to have a different energy in the room with us.
“It was good to have external input,” adds Will. “It shakes you up.”
Goldfrapp knew they wanted to make an electronic album but not one that echoed the Weimar disco of Black Cherry so they focused on the mantric power of rhythm and built from there. “Changing the emphasis particularly with rhythm is always a challenge and is important for the type of atmosphere you're trying to create" says Alison. Will agrees: “If you get a good rhythm, then you can get a song in an afternoon. If you can be repetitive without getting bored, if you can hypnotize yourself, that’s a good sign.”
Alison’s lyrics on Silver Eye are more ambiguous than the character-driven narratives of Tales of Us but they still tell stories. Become the One, with its treated vocals and fizzing synths, was inspired by a documentary directed by Nick Sweeney about transgender children entitled My Transgender Summer Camp. “I found it so moving and inspiring,” says Alison. “At the end of the film this girl says, ‘I’m not changing who I am, I am becoming who I am.’ In a way we’re all trying to become someone that we want to be.”
The album teems with images of the natural world, raw and intense with a suggestion of the uncanny: the man metamorphosing into beast “ascending the moonlit hills” in Tigerman, the “silver eye” of the moon in Systemagic, the “mountains with eyes” of Everything Is Never Enough, and the stars reflected in dark water in Zodiac Black. For the album artwork and the video for Anymore, Goldfrapp headed to Fuerteventura, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands. Its black sands, stark cliffs, rolling dunes and blazing blue skies, captured in Alison’s own photographs, are an apt analogue to the elemental drama of the music.
Alison describes Goldfrapp’s music-making as “a constant quest. I don’t think you ever feel like you’ve achieved everything, it’s impossible. You’re always searching, trying to attain some kind of utopia in what you do.”
With Silver Eye, that search has taken them to yet another new place, one that’s full of mystery, menace and transcendent beauty. Goldfrapp’s quest continues.