How time flies. It's hard to believe Gossip are now on their fifth album, but they were slow to break through, only hitting paydirt in 2006 with their third set Standing In The Way Of Control and its astonishing title track.
Since then, 2009 saw them release Music For Men, a less accomplished record but a global million seller nevertheless. OK, that sounds impressive on the face of it, but there's still a sense the band have ground to make up. They've slipped out of the public eye – and that's no mean feat when your lead singer is Beth Ditto.
Ditto is of course the trio's main attraction. Perennially described as "larger than life" she's used her charms effectively, at one point adorning NME's cover in the buff to celebrate her coronation as the coolest person in pop, but her real asset is a voice that could bend metal. Variously aggressive and soulful, Ditto has the pipes to overcome the most ordinary music – a useful skill when Gossip go off the boil, as they occasionally do.
A Joyful Noise signals a dramatic change of tack, largely leaving the spiky punk spirit of earlier albums behind and embracing a purer, brighter pop approach. Swathes of this must be down to their choice of producer. Brian Higgins is the main man at Xenomania, a production outfit that has worked with latter-period Pet Shop Boys but – most significantly – guided Girls Aloud through their own imperial phase. Unsurprisingly then, it's synths that dominate, along with a winning tendency to dive for the killer chorus. It makes for a much more accessible Gossip, a feeling emphasised by Ditto's admission that she's listened to little else but ABBA for the past year, hoping to emulate their deft melodies and lack of "rawness".
Gossip have certainly cooked away the rawness. In its clean lines and sequenced beats – long-term cohorts, guitarist Nathan 'Brace Paine' Howdeshell and drummer Hannah Blilie are barely noticeable throughout – A Joyful Noise is as smooth a pop album as you're likely to hear all year. Get A Job, with its austere throb and hectoring tone ("What kind of life is it when every day's a weekend?/You need to get a job"), could be Depeche Mode. It's an ancient videogame of a track, entirely synthetic but for Ditto's impassioned vocal. Perfect World is a similar post-production confection, absolutely vast but entirely arranged around towers of synths, veering dangerously close to a Keane record.
That mooted ABBA influence does poke through though, particularly on Move In The Right Direction where pumping Hi-NRG meets a shimmering chorus and swirling Gimme Gimme Gimme strings. It's there too on the frosty Love In A Foreign Place before zigzagging piano lines recall – of all things – near-namesakes Hot Gossip's kitsch 1978 hit I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper.
But the best stuff's served up when Ditto allows herself to let rip. On Get Lost – one of many tracks dealing with rejection and ruined relationships – she yells, "You're dancing to the beat of a different drum" as if her life depends on it, over an absolute riot of Italo house pianos and funky, treated guitars. It's a thrilling meld of passion and dancefloor ecstasy, as is I Won't Play, where deep funk pushes up against the rockiest workout on the album.
The more subdued Casualties Of War and Into The Wild form a mid-album dip that undermines grand claims for A Joyful Noise, but this is still a pop album of some substance. Yes, Gossip have filed away some edge and no, their songs don't have the chops to get away with ABBA comparisons right now – but in their own exuberant way they've chosen a new direction that shows real promise.