“Jo” opens the record — their sixth — with a red herring: a burst of synth strings. They quickly fade to a plucked bass, piano and Alison Goldfrapp’s beautiful voice singing, “Heard a shot and someone calling, strained in darkness.” It’s as if she’s passed from Technicolor into noirish black and white, following 2010’s sparkly Head First. That record, a kicky if lightweight homage to chunky ’80s synth rock, stands in stark contrast to Tales, which may not be rock ’n’ roll, but was nonetheless crafted by the band’s punk ethos of “we do what we want, charts be damned.”
Returning without warning in July, they launched the album with “Drew” and its companion video. The track has lineage in the songs on 2007’s The Seventh Tree, which dabbled in electronica-laced folkiness. “Drew” is distilled Goldfrapp, with evocative images of a “falling lemon moon” and an exhilarating moment at 2:10 where the song (and video) goes widescreen with soaring stings.
Goldfrapp herself has never sounded warmer. On “Laurel” she even reveals a new voice: sounding almost submerged underwater, her register dips low, as if she’s transmitting an inner blues. In recent interviews, Goldfrapp has said these songs are narratives inspired by fiction and film; her sometimes indecipherable vocals enhance the music’s impressionistic qualities.
Several tracks are also inspired by true stories: “Annabel,” is based on the life of a young hermaphrodite expected to choose one sexual identity, while the ecstatic closer, “Clay,” is inspired by the loving eulogy of a WWII solider to his male lover, killed in battle. “You are wonderful light, my only love / sleep well, goodnight,” she sings on the album’s final lines.
For fans most enamored by the Goldfrapp that deftly splices disco music to Bondian grandeur (see Black Cherry’s “Tiptoe”), only the pounding, complex “Thea” will sate. But don’t mistake subtly for weakness: the album is a perfect autumn headphone record. It will sound best as the seasons change, a soundtrack to falling leaves and lit fireplaces. To paraphrase one of the album’s astonishing ballads, “Stranger,” Tales Of Us will kill you, tenderly.
Idolator Rating: 4/5
— Stephen Sears