Amid the onslaught of Kardashians, Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj, the pop world has never needed Beth Ditto more. In many ways, the favorite daughter of Searcy, Arkansas, remains one of a kind—funny, flamboyant and endlessly quotable, a tireless opponent of sexism, homophobia and sizism and a champion of self-empowerment. Alas, that’s true everywhere except on her second major-label album fronting the Gossip.
Riding high on the success of Standing in the Way of Control (2006) and basking in the adulation of the U.K. pop machine, Ditto began the great bland-out with her shift from Kill Rock Stars to Columbia Records in 2009, allowing Rick Rubin to buff away all of the quirky edges that made the group’s earlier dance-punk so effervescent and irresistible. (And what is it with that guy stripping our oversized heroines of all their originality? He of course did the same with Adele on 21.) But at least on Music for Men, the Gossip songs still sounded like Gossip songs under all that useless makeup. A Joyful Noise is another matter entirely.
Even in her most punk phase, Ditto’s primary goal has been to you shake your booty, and a noble one that is. “Our mission is to make you dance, and if you're not gonna dance, just stay at home and listen to the oldies station,” was the manifesto she proclaimed at the start of the group. Alas, the muddled evolution of her idea of what’s danceable is the problem. Turning to Brit songwriter and producer Brian “Xenomania” Higgins (Kylie Minogue, Girls Aloud, Sugababes), she has said her goal for the Gossip’s sixth studio album was to pay homage to the mighty ABBA, claiming that she listened to nothing else for the last 365 days of the long three-year between discs. The results, however, are less a punk take on those legendary blonde Swedes than a weak evocation of Lady Gaga at her most lame imitating Vogue-era Madonna, right down to the incredibly cheesy walls of ’80s synths, the generic drum-machine sounds, the listless grooves and the insipid lyrics.
And, oh, those lyrics. “In a picture-perfect world/We can be more than before-ooah-ooah,” Ditto bellows in “Perfect World.” “I’m not in love with you/I’m just involved with you,” she trills in “Involved”; “The beat goes on in a higher zone/Anything can sound absurd/Depends on how you say it,” she muses in “Horns”; and, worst of all, “You never know how it’s going to go/End up tomorrow/You gotta try, try, try” she intones in the beyond-awful, pitch-shifted homage to Ke$ha homage, “Get A Job.”
Even if the hooks were strong enough to justifiy such lazy throw-aways, we’d be scratching our heads and pondering what happened to the Ditto we knew and loved. But as it is with this tuneless piece of disposable pop product, the lack of Beth is nothing short of tragic.
The Gossip, A Joyful Noise (Columbia Records)
Rating on the four-star scale: 1/2 star.