Three years between records. It’s just enough time to build up friendships with supermodels, helm a Guardian column, be revered and be reviled – if you’re Beth Ditto. Gossip‘s last album, ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’ – you may have heard of it – was recorded on a shoestring in mere days. ‘That’s real punk,’ they said. The fact that the title track went on to define 2006 more definitively than bird flu opened up new doors. Goodbye riot grrrls, hello 3am Girls. ‘This isn’t punk!’ they cried. Too late: Beth Ditto had become iconic.
Not that Gossip care. Sure, you can seethe with indignant rage at notions of selling out, but this band couldn’t give a shit. Proof: getting Rick Rubin to produce this follow-up album. While Ditto’s very existence as a fat-positive, out lesbian meant she carried an air of subversion even when hanging off the arm of Kate Moss, the choice of Rubin still feels as if they are playing into their detractors’ hands. Best known for upping compression levels on records for bloated rock behemoths, it’s not surprising he provides the band’s fourth album with a sleek appropriation of their former sound.
Opener ‘Dimestore Diamond’ eases you into the warmer sound with its bourbon-bruised stomp, a nod to when Gossip were more closely aligned to the blues of The White Stripes than the neon palette of new rave. Even so, the relentless march of the bass drum foreshadows the seedier dance-driven concerns that this record spends much of its time courting shamelessly.
Take lead single ‘Heavy Cross’; it’s a retread of the song that made them famous, complete with pounding drums, an elastic bassline and a vague suggestion of homosexual desire as martyrdom. Now, however, the will to empower is shrouded in restraint. Where once Ditto contorted her soul vocals into knots of rage, here it sounds sweet – pretty, even – the punk firebrand blossoming into fully-fledged disco-dyke. Indeed, what characterises ‘Music For Men’ is the constant drive towards an electronic dynamic. Lodged between the stripped-back syntax of Hannah Blilie’s percussion and Brace Paine’s fretwork lie burbles of synthetic punctuation: check out the ‘Strings Of Life’ breakdown in ‘Pop Goes The World’, the ominous analogue waves that lap at ‘Vertical Rhythm’, or the frankly bizarre moment in ‘Men In Love’ when the organic instruments peel away to reveal a glutinous bass throb that sounds like something off a Shackleton dubstep record. Clutches of Chicago house chords, along with the paraphrasing of Marvin Gaye for no discernable reason, make ‘Love Long Distance’ Gossip’s disco epiphany, cutting through the summer’s Mini-Korg saturation like a Lady Gaga PVC one-piece.
It would be a triumph if we could remain at this pinnacle but, like a cocaine rush, the crash soon follows. ‘Men In Love’ takes the disco theme to its natural, vacuous conclusion. “Guilty of love in the first degree”, sings Ditto over a punk-funk backing (complete with cowbell, suggesting a nostalgia for 2004 as well as 1974), but this rendering of an imagined utopia marks the first time Gossip sound conventional. While California’s Supreme Court upholds the ban on same-sex marriage – suggesting that standing in the way didn’t do much good after all – Beth Ditto is too embroiled in facile observations (“I can’t remember having so much fun/When morning comes everybody’s waking up with someone”) to care. Despite the oh-so-ironic “shame shame shame” refrain, it’s as insipid as a night at G-A-Y while stone-cold sober.
Such gripes are to miss the point, though. Take away the cover, the only striking concession to queerness, and ‘Music For Men’ is a sugar-coated dance record that echoes with universality. For many, it will be a betrayal, the record they should never have made. In which case, find solace in the coda of ‘Spare Me From The Mold’, where thrashing drums, down-tuned guitar and spurts of sax give the impression of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks crashing Studio 54. A harbinger of their next direction? Who knows?
For the most part, though, this is a frivolous, joyful celebration: of all love, heartbreak, sex and dancing. If the band was formed as a means of escaping the closed-mindedness of their Southern backgrounds, then this is the fruits of their emancipation. And who can deny them that?