Gossip sure have come a long way from their early soulful backwoods punk sound. Nowhere is this more apparent than with this latest release, A Joyful Noise, their fifth studio album (and their second on Columbia Records). With more synth than guitar, and some fancy production courtesy of an industry bigwig, this album demonstrates a brave venture into electro-pop territory, not to mention a serious departure from the raw emotion and rough edges that have only endeared Gossip to their fans. The emotion’s still there, but it’s refined; and the rough edges of yesteryear have been sanded and polished almost beyond recognition.
Once upon a time, three misfit kids from Arkansas moved to Olympia, WA, where they formed a band they called The Gossip. There they successfully courted K Records and then Kill Rock Stars with their first few releases: The Gossip EP (1999) and the full-length followups That’s Not What I Heard (2000) and Movement (2003).
After changing drummers and dropping the initial “The” somewhere along the way, Gossip gradually developed the unique brand of funky disco-punk that they’re known for. Their outstanding breakthrough album, Standing in the Way of Control (2006) garnered some serious attention and was followed by 2009’s Music for Men, which introduced synthesizers and a dancier sound. This well-received album featured the smash hit “Heavy Cross,” a dance floor anthem that has been aptly characterized (with razor-sharp accuracy, IMHO) as “Donna Summer covering Bauhaus.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
While guitarist/bassist Brace Paine and drummer Hannah Blilie are obviously both integral parts of the band, singer Beth Ditto’s angelic voice and iconic Dolly Dagger delivery have always been the star of the show, the definitive mark of Gossip’s sound. Initially her Riot Grrrl origins and queer politics were the source of her magnetism — she was like a classier, more mature, and less annoying Kathleen Hanna. Ditto’s voice has become both stronger and sweeter over the years, and this latest release confirms that her vocals are still at center stage. Only now the backing band is a bit lamer than it used to be, and the guy at the soundboard is out of control.
A Joyful Noise features the production expertise of British electro-pop hitmaker Brian Higgins, who has collaborated with Kylie Minogue, Pet Shop Boys, and Sugababes, to name a few of the biggest names. He might have worked magic before, but his influence on this album probably did more harm than good. While there are a few definite standouts (“Move in the Right Direction,” “Melody Emergency,” “Get a Job,” “I Won’t Play”), the bulk of the album leaves you feeling confused and disappointed. A handful of songs are thoroughly enjoyable (“Perfect World,” “Get Lost,” “Involved”) but sound almost nothing like the funky, punky Gossip we all know and love, leaving you wondering if we’re hearing the outtakes from when Kylie somehow managed to take Beth Ditto hostage and ply her with tranquilizers and disco remixes.
Unfortunately, aside from the weird half-misses, there are also several colossal missteps that are so un-Gossip-like that they’re almost embarrassing to listen to (“Casualties of War,” “Into the Wild,” “Love in a Foreign Place”). There are some real “What were they thinking??” moments (the bizarre “Jungle Boogie”-tainted cray-cray darkwave jam that is “Horns”), some strange departures into trancey-sounding synth hooks, as well as a few songs that could be the direct descendants of “Seventeen Seconds”-era Cure, if Robert Smith were a diva with an opera-worthy voice and better makeup application skills (oh c’mon, his lipstick is always crooked!).
I blame these shortcomings mostly on the producer (yeah yeah, killing the messenger), but Gossip have to take some responsibility here. While I’ll be the first to say that I loves me some synth, there’s a definite overreliance on synthesizers and production tricks here, leaving everything feeling just a bit sanitized and soulless. Ditto’s vocals sound as gorgeous as ever, but she doesn’t sing with the defiant conviction that we hear on previous albums. She’s more of a disco dowager here, not the passionate punk chanteuse that we all adore. Ditto’s clearly experienced some relationship turbulence, which comes out in the lyrics, and it’s clear that she’s been listening to lots of ABBA (she has confessed as much in recent interviews). The music itself is considerably more experimental and polished, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself — it’s just…odd. Oh, and there’s not nearly enough of that crucial Gossip hallmark, the relentless funky jankitty-janking guitar. Bring back the jankitty-jank!!!
One of the chief complaints about this album from other reviewers has been that the lyrics are trite and simplistic. OK, maybe if you compare them to lyrics from previous Gossip albums, but somehow the simplified messages on A Joyful Noise really resonate. The beauty of simplicity is that it lends itself to ambiguity, which means you can get all kinds of messages out of a seemingly boring verse. For example: I hold back tears / So I can move in the right direction. / I have faced my fears / Now I can move in the right direction. Deeply philosophical? No. But damned if we can’t all relate to that!
In this case, the ambiguity on A Joyful Noise means you can use the album like a cure-all wonder tonic. Listen to it to help you recover from a messy breakup, a failed project, or a rejection letter. Let it motivate you to lose weight! Break a bad habit! Rid your life of toxic people! Etc.! You kinda can’t go wrong. That is, if you can tolerate the weirdness of it all.
In the final analysis, A Joyful Noise is listenable, but not lovable. It’s like when your chef-savant BFF — you know, the one who always makes the most amazing food you’ve ever tasted — serves up something that’s…less than spectacular. But you eat it anyway, because you love her and she made it, and because, you know, it’s not really all that bad. You know that deep down, she’s got what it takes to cook delicious food, so you just keep hoping that the next thing she cranks out will be as delectable as ever. Right? Fingers crossed…