Colorado songwriter mixes obscenity and emotional heft with huge pop melodies
Gossip - 'A Joyful Noise'
Right now it looks like the road to the scrapheap
Gossip’s last album – 2009’s major label debut ‘Music For Men’ – found the Olympia trio at a career crossroads. Poised to reap the double gifts of the gargantuan success of 2006 album ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’ and the irresistible charisma of lead singer Beth Ditto, ‘MFM’ should have made their legend. Choosing production superman Rick Rubin to take the helm suggested they’d unify their core strengths to create something truly great. But it was the sound of a band unsure which direction to take. Bumping between ‘SITWOC’ soundalikes (‘Heavy Cross’) and disco/funk workouts which either worked well (‘Love Long Distance’) or felt like they’d attached a flawed melody onto a four-to-the-floor beat (‘Pop Goes The World’), the sparks were there but, to steal major label parlance, they didn’t leapfrog to ‘the next level’.
Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for Ditto’s solo EP last year with Simian Mobile Disco, which was everything ‘Music For Men’ wasn’t – a sleek, epic and perception-shifting 21st-century pop masterpiece. It suggested the end for Gossip. Instead they’ve regrouped and ditched Rubin for Brian Higgins. Like Rubin, Higgins knows his music and founded Xenomania, the shadowy architects of several dozen pop gems for the likes of Girls Aloud, Sugababes and Kylie. Conceptually, the idea of ‘Gossip go full-on pop’ is bursting with possibilities. But the reality is not.
‘A Joyful Noise’ operates below the sum of its parts. Whatever Top 40 ambitions the band have are generally undermined by their attempts to Write A Pop Song. Good moments are squandered by unsatisfying choruses and/or weak lyrics. ‘Get A Job’, for example, with its ‘Rio’-style drums and tale of a rapidly ageing trustafarian-gone-sad feels laboured. Ditto’s spoken-word refrain (“I’d love to stay and party/But I have to go to work”) attempts to imitate the Pet Shop Boys’ vocal style, but ends up sounding like Made In Chelsea’s Caggie Dunlop doing the rap from ‘Vogue’.
Elsewhere the Xenomania groove of ‘Move In The Right Direction’ pairs a wispy synth sound with Ditto’s creaky, cliché-filled lyrics (“Never say never”, “One day at a time”, “It’s not perfect but it’s getting closer”), and it grates where it should fly out of the speakers. The best moments come on the slower numbers. Single ‘Perfect World’ sounds like an ’80s Bond theme, with its dynamic build to a suitably dramatic chorus where Ditto sounds involved and present (something all too rare on ‘A Joyful Noise’), while the well-constructed, digitised ballad ‘Casualties Of War’ similarly succeeds in retaining a level of sleek mystery.
More problematic than the bad lyrics or air of disengagement is Higgins’ involvement. Too much of the album sounds washed out and painfully clean. ‘Get Lost’’s housey synths drip like an endless M People remix, and the lyrics “the beat goes on!” have never sounded more depressing than on the hollow, refried disco of ‘Horns’. Other numbers, such as ‘Into The Wild’ and ‘I Won’t Play’, disappear completely into the bland, dispiriting musical ether. ‘Going pop’ is not a move to take lightly, and with ‘A Joyful Noise’ Gossip have faltered into territory from which they may never recover. Guess that’s why Ronson was so emphatic.
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