If Felt Mountain is still the best Goldfrapp record, it's because it finds Alison Goldfrapp as close as she has ever come to expressing her real self, even with the thin but stubborn line of gauze between artist and recipient in situ; there were songs and feelings on that record worthy of Billy MacKenzie, and on the evidence of Tricky's "Pumpkin" alone she had greatness nestled inside her awkward coat of dubious fibres, not to mention everything that she did with/to Orbital and Add N To X.
I never really got on with the glitter Goldfrapp, to me always a Kristine Sparkle version of Miss Kittin, a duffer Duffy take on Peaches, an Annie Lennox photocopy of Grace Jones (but then hadn't we done the latter already?) - what was she hiding from? Seventh Tree fails to resolve this dilemma entirely, and despite considerably more radiant moments than anything on her second or third albums, I still suspect she is overprotecting herself behind masks of assumed mirth. Nor am I certain of the validity of a hauntology record at this late hour; the 1971 gusset glow, Will Gregory's 1971 spectacles, the inexact refraction of predecessors from Boards of Canada to Saint Etienne - all of which take her further away from a 2008 Marianne Faithfull than draw her closer. There were the Lesley Duncans and Linda Perhacses and Bridget St Johns of 1971 but their inheld pastoralities were set against an unavoidable backdrop of grimy cities and political crises rather than a flaky frisson of dandelion to enable deliberate ignorance of the burning world surrounding them like a flaming circle of aggressive wagons.
Except these are simply more masks behind which Seventh Tree can protect its story of lost love, extreme desperation and final, cautious renewals, and its highpoints deserve to be beamed into the spotlight. The schaffel hasn't quite vanished entirely - "Road To Somewhere" chirpily draws the listener's attention away from its underlying beats - but there are pauses of wonder, if not quite utopian transcendence. The single "A&E" is exemplary; a cooed sequence of coded bewilderment which steadily and frighteningly comes into focus as the boxed-in guitars and drums seem to batter against her cocoon as she slowly reaches full consciousness - "How did I get to Accident and Emergency?" she asks, still drifting, still floating as she awakens from what was evidently an attempted and thwarted suicide ("dancing on the floor"); more polite than Amy or Adele, but delving infinitely further into nooks and dreads unreachable by the latter.
On the final re-consummation of "Monster Love" she even sounds like Olivia Newton-John waking up in 2008 after 37 years of sedation, though her thoughts are not quite idyllic ("The folly of a monster love"), and although it cannot begin to match the closer than this closing of "now"s at the end of Perhacs' "Delicious," nor the very environment of things like Catherine Howe's Such A Beautiful Place, let alone the markedly superior work in the same field of Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man a half-decade (!) ago.
But the opening "Clowns" seems to me the album's clear achievement. Low strings and a Joni-ish vocal but this is neither "River Man" nor Blue, and as you creep closer to its marginally less than welcoming beauty you notice the mumble, as though Goldfrapp, bound and gagged, is trying to communicate something through the tightly woven cloth, leather and rope; these are not the giddy abstractions of a Liz Frazer. The struggle of someone trying to escape a sunny, golden hell.
Then you refer to the lyrics, for once printed in full in the CD booklet, and what she is singing is the precise antithesis of a halycon Wicker Man daydream (the paradox!) - "Only clowns would play with those balloons/Whaddya wanna look like Barbie for?/Dear oh Lord, it's easy/Roasting, roasting, roast indeed, mahogany titties that live on and on, on and on." A swift blow to both the anorexic supermodel anti-culture and a subtler swipe at the secondhand bliss of recalling sunblessed ghosts of a childhood which might never have existed; you approach Goldfrapp passively at your peril.