In a busy week for one of pop's most inscrutable female artists, Alison Goldfrapp has spellbound a converted church in Manchester before headlining London's hedonistic Lovebox weekender. This grand courtyard, though, feels like the perfect arena for a return that ranges widely from delicate acid folk to pulsing disco.
The singer dresses for the occasion in floaty black with a cape caught by a fan’s draft, as the duo she formed with rarely seen instrumentalist Will Gregory seeks to recover from the creative misstep of their last outing, 2010's overly clinical Head First. That was a rare wrong turn for a pair that had arguably inspired a swathe of idiosyncratic characters such as Florence Welch and Natasha Khan. Early reports suggest a swing back to the cinematic feel of their debut album Felt Mountain from a decade earlier.
If this is a critical moment for Alison and her five-piece group, they refuse to show it, beginning with airy pop and gentle reveries built around swooning violin and acoustic finger-picking. The still gauche performer’s vocals are strong and confident, halfway between breathy femininity and middle European froideur, a manner that suits a smattering of tasters from Tales Of Us, due in September. On this showing, Goldfrapp's sixth album is set to be their most diaphanous work to date, the most memorable moments tonight being the classical sweep of "Stranger" with its enigmatic reference to a “boy or girl” and the more urgent "Clay" based on a skittering rhythm.
As well as harking back to their debut, these tunes fit well with the shadowy pastorals of 2008’s Seventh Tree, the underselling album that led Goldfrapp's previous label to unwisely demand more accessible material. Now it provides some of this set’s highlights, the sweet and twisted love song "A&E" that owes much of its dramatic punch to Fleetwood Mac and a frankly beautiful "Little Bird". Yet Alison can still shift from quirky chanteuse to the dancefloor diva that gave Goldfrapp fame.
An impressive laser display weaves patterns on the opposite wall to mark a change in tone, underlined when band members don keytars to signify the party is finally starting. The stone slabs become a seething open-air nightclub to welcome the group’s more immediate tunes, led by the glam stomp of "Ooh La La" and the wonky synthpop of "Train".
They may find it a challenge touring their delicate new material, but Goldfrapp still put on a heck of a show.