This is not the Goldfrapp of Black Cherry, Supernature, or of any of the London duo’s club hits. Tales of Us has but one cut, “Thea,” that features muted club beats and, like the rest, it’s not particularly fast or dance-inducing. Synths on the other nine are scarce, and certainly discreet: This time around, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory focus mostly on acoustic instrumentation — primarily guitar, strings and piano — while maintaining their exacting control over their instrumentation’s sonic impact. There’s far too much studio processing and thickly arranged orchestration on their sixth album to deem the results folky or unfinished. And all the billowing softness on display doesn’t make for straightforward easy listening; the harmonies are constructed in such a way that tension rarely dissipates.
This abrupt musical about-face isn’t unprecedented: In 2008, they followed their 2005 UK neo-disco smash Supernature with their pastoral Seventh Tree, which Tales of Us resembles in tone and texture. The additional wrinkle here is that each song is sung to a titular character. Stopping short of storytelling, singer Alison Goldfrapp gives away just enough details to suggest appearance, demeanor and hints of conflict while withholding other key details. Sometimes she puts herself in the near-narrative, as she does with “Jo,” the ominous opening track and “Drew,” one of several breathy-voiced love songs. And sometimes she watches sympathetically from nearby, like on “Annabel,” which might be about someone born intersex (“Why they couldn’t let you be both?”).
Elsewhere, Goldfrapp sings lustily to both genders as the music swells and subsides in oceanic yet generally gentle waves. The result is a generously sensual record that nevertheless maintains its mystery.