By Ben Kessler
Arkansas-bred indie band Gossip (née The Gossip; like Facebook, they dropped the definite article) came to A Joyful Noise, their fifth studio album, having exhausted the exhortative possibilities of millennial dance-punk. Ahead of the pop culture curve, singer Beth Ditto went the distance—shorter than it seems—from subaltern militant (2006’s Standing in the Way of Control) to prophet of boho-hipster liberation (2009’s Music for Men).
The band’s breakout single, “Standing in the Way of Control,” was celebrated for its punk progressivism vis-à-vis gay marriage. Just as audacious but much less straightforward, A Joyful Noise is in sync with our current conflicted—ahem, “evolved”—cultural moment.
Gossip made an unequivocal break with the recent past when they decamped from producer Mark Ronson’s studio to work with Brian Higgins, founder of hitmaking outfit Xenomania. Ditto has said of Ronson, “We had all the same reference points.” Indeed, Ronson’s sampling sensibility curates pop music history according to a consistent hierarchy of “underground” values. He goes at his business with an undisguised sincere belief in the purity, the authenticity, that cultural history lends to certain sounds.
Higgins has no such belief. His is a synthesizing sensibility. Higgins and his collaborators put all of pop in the hopper. In its production for acts such as Saint Etienne, Girls Aloud and Florrie, Xenomania uses eclecticism for scale.
The key to the Xenomania genius lies in tailoring excess: knowing when too much is just right vs. when it really is too much. Clearly, Higgins’ philosophy is that a strong topline melody exerts discipline downward and no effect that serves to impress the melody deeper into the listener’s consciousness should be questioned.
So, yes, this is the full-on pop sound that Gossip have been tending toward for the last half-decade. But it’s not a cynical assault on the charts. When rock acts go pop, they often burrow all the way in as if to hide themselves, eliding the intermediate steps, the thought process that got them there. (Of course, that’s because, often, there is no thought process other than The Pet Shop Boys’ ironic rallying cry, “Let’s make lots of money.”)
A Joyful Noise, however, retains many of the ingredients of the familiar Gossip sound. By collaborating with Xenomania, Gossip embark on a (forgive me) epistemological adventure, detaching their sound from its obvious reference points and mining their punk inheritance to discover its deepest register of truth and meaning.
Tracks like “Get a Job” deviate from sentimentalized ideas about outsider authenticity. Where some might see a righteous affront to conformity, Ditto sees troubling inertia: “It was adorable when you were in your twenties/Not so cute anymore now that you’re pushing 30/Girl, you better get a job.” Much of the album flips Gossip’s previous rebel-rousing role to incite introspection rather than subcult rites of affirmation. The slow-building ballad “Casualties of War” looks beyond the political arrangement of gay love relationships to weigh serious consequences: “You lost the fight/I heard it was a good fight/The kind where no one wins and no one’s right.”
The closing track, “Love in a Foreign Place,” brings the theme of xenomania (love of all things foreign) to the forefront. It’s ironic that this album, not the purest representation of the signature Higgins sound, concludes with what may prove to be the definitive Xenomania song.
With a hook powered by triumphal, parallel bass and synth lines (classic Xenomania), the song fulfills the album’s title by heralding an expat state of being where there’s “so much to live for, so much to lose.” Recasting her personal history as existential narrative, Ditto exults in having overcome the limits of “life in a small town.” But “Love in a Foreign Place”—and the album as a whole—is anchored by the chastening awareness that anywhere can be a small town.
A Joyful Noise drives us back to those warring personal impulses that are the true origin and final testing ground of our politics.
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