A fifth album from the pop-embracing trio that’s geared for maximum chart impact.
Martin Aston 2012
Anyone shocked by the advanced commercial bent of Gossip’s fifth album should refer to the Washington trio’s 2006 breakthrough LP Standing in the Way of Control – track four, Coal to Diamonds, is a soul ballad not a zillion miles from Cyndi Lauper or Stevie Nicks. Or how 2009’s Music for Men offset its serrated, sinewy tendencies with house-y piano.
For despite the band’s stereotypically defined riot grrrl origins and Beth Ditto’s stereotypically defined ‘sassy’ reputation, Gossip have were never truly hardcore or confrontational, despite the homo-core politics of ...Control’s brilliant title track. But the way the opening salvos of A Joyful Noise seem to share spiritual DNA with Madonna is still a real eye-opener.
That Gossip should be vilified for this shift depends on your own hard-line hardcore beliefs, and if you like to host disco vinyl bonfire parties. Or on your view of its producer, Brian "Xenomania" Higgins, whose CV includes Girls Aloud and The Saturdays.
Higgins is no vulgar hit-factory manager, and there’s a gorgeous swish to his dovetailing synths and syncopated drum pumps; though the way he routinely deploys guitars is surely not what Gossip’s Nathan Howdeshell was put on this earth for. Under Higgins’ guidance, Gossip is less a band, more a Pro-Tooled Route 1 to the chart summit, albeit a Route 1 with Beth Ditto at the front.
Ditto’s emotion-soaked vocals are the album’s true saving graces. Her already established charisma is far too strong for Higgins to even attempt a "Girls Aloud" – she's one step ahead of him, reportedly listening to ABBA for a full year while making this album.
Of those Madonna-esque intros, Melody Emergency has a bass synth/guitar heft ("additional production" by Gossip might mean they added some musical weight after the Higgins sessions) and lead single Perfect World is gleaming and urgent. Get a Job even survives its awkward semi-rap intro (not much ABBA here, Beth) for something stealthy and anthemic.
But they can’t keep it up. Naming a track Move in the Right Direction invites trouble, especially if it encapsulates the album’s Achilles’ heel, of songs seemingly born of a commercial will rather than a real need. A mid-album lull is saved by Horns’ funky grit and, yes, horns, and I Won’t Play’s vulnerable core.
You could argue that A Joyful Noise is the album Madonna should be brave enough to make. But it might also be the case that it’s the album that Gossip should have been brave enough not to.