It has been six years since Gossip crashed into the widespread public consciousness with the intensely thrilling dance punk of breakthrough album Standing In The Way Of Control and its inescapable title track. In the intervening years, the Washington trio of Beth Ditto, Nathan Howdeshell and Hannah Billie have embarked on a gradual smoothing out and refinement of their sound, embracing ever more commercial and dance floor oriented pop influences.
2009’s Music For Men was a rather conflicted album that saw them moving in a more overtly pop direction but still retaining some of that old punk fire, resulting in a rather muddled album. A Joyful Noise sees the trio crystallising their love of big brash dance pop with an album that utterly embraces shiny commercial pop and everything that goes with it, with limited success.
The most obvious example of A Joyful Noise’s willingness to go for the pop jugular is the employment of Xenomania’s Brian Higgins as producer. Xenomania are, of course, the pop production powerhouse responsible for the sound of Girls Aloud and The Saturdays. Higgins’ pop expertise has allowed Gossip to realise their commercial pop ambitions with his smooth glistening productions, but there is an inescapable sense that some of their personality and thrilling sense of abandon has been sacrificed.
Beth Ditto is the magnetic presence that dominates Gossip and her creative vision and presence is all over the album. Ditto has spoken of spending the whole year listening to ABBA while making the record, and that love of pristine melodic pop comes across throughout the album. Melody Emergency opens with a slinky melody with Ditto’s vocals very much to the fore. When the guitars come in at the chorus they are crunchingly processed and rock in the manner of a factory line production rather than a ragged punk band, the guitar sounds tacked on amid sweeping synth lines and syncopated beats. At times, the album feels more like a Beth Ditto solo album rather than the organic work of a real band. Indeed, the album may be influenced by Ditto’s solo EP, on which she collaborated with Simian Mobile Disco.
The sound of mid ’80s electro pop and soft rock hangs heavy. The sound alternates between anthemic expansive pop rock and frenzied Hi-NRG disco. The latter is encapsulated in the supremely hook filled and wonderfully exuberant Get Lost. It is all utterly reverential and the huge house piano sound teeters on the edge of parody, but Gossip’s pop nous and Ditto’s strong personality delivering lines like “You’re dancing to the beat of a different drum” carry it through. When nostalgia sounds this good it’s difficult to complain. The single Perfect World is another highlight, with its prime recreation of a soaring piece of ’80s synth pop. Beth Ditto makes an excellent soulful diva and she has rarely sounded better than on here.
Elsewhere, the album suffers from a worrying lack of memorable melodies. The songs strike all the right sounds but nothing seems to truly cut through. Get A Job does a passable impression of a Lady Gaga track but is let down by a rather witless chorus, while Horns and I Won’t Play are functional electro funk workouts carried along by Ditto’s excellent soulful vocals and little else. The backing tracks at times sound interchangeable with any number of homogenised electro pop tracks.
The best moments here are when the pace drops and the melodies shine through, such as the Fleetwood Mac sounding big ballad Casualties Of War, where Ditto channels her inner Stevie Nicks to tremendous effect. Much of the album appears to be about the simple themes of love and relationships, and there is an endearing vulnerability as Ditto sings “I’m not as strong as you thought I was”.
A Joyful Noise is the sound of Gossip taking their love of dance floor pop to its natural conclusion with their most obvious and accessible album yet. Despite its attempts to reach for the pop stratosphere though, it remains resolutely grounded for the most part.