Music for Men, is not, whatever the hype may suggest, the second album from Gossip – although, in the wake of Standing in the Way of Control’s massive success, it might as well be. In fact, Music for Men is the band’s fourth studio album and the culmination of nearly a decade of musical experimentation. Originally a small-time Washington-via-Arkansas punk band, Gossip hit it big with their last album, but it looks as though the hype has taken its toll.
Helmed by Beth Ditto, one of rock’s most remarkable new icons, Gossip comes across as a furious mix of soul, blues, and disco, often precariously balanced between the three. But on Music for Men, as on Standing, that balanced is tipped slightly towards the latter. Dance-punk as a genre is starting to feel a little stale, and Gossip were always at their most majestic when they let Ditto’s blues-howl lead the show. If their debut That’s Not What I’ve Heardwas a swampy, brutal masterpiece, then recent efforts have often felt like an attempt to capture that early energy.
Rick Rubin’s bloated production (perhaps unsurprisingly) doesn’t do the band any favors in that respect. While Brace Paine and Hannah Blilie acquit themselves pretty well (Blilie in particular has really developed as a drummer), most of Gossip’s magic gets lost in the translation. Music for Men has a glossy, heavily-produced sound (particularly on “Pop Goes the World”, which is more made-up than a Kardashian). And if that production amps up “2012” into a satisfyingly gnarly rock monster, it’s enough to derail the sludgy “Vertical Rhythm”. Even the opening purr of “Dimestore Diamond” is misleading; it promises a return-to-form and delivers a lukewarm testament to a girl who “shines like the real thing”.
Part of the problem might be that, as important as Blilie and Paine are to the group, Gossip has always been the Beth Ditto show – and her recent celebrity status has only increased that perception. And so to take Ditto’s outraged howl and turn it into a coo is a crime. Even on “Heavy Cross”, Music for Men’s lead single, she spends most of its four minutes contained within a glossy, new-wave cage. The exception is the fiery “8th Wonder”, which more than stands on its own thanks to lyrics like “There was a time/ Before girls knew they weren’t pretty yet / There was a time / Before boys knew they weren’t tough enough.”
“8th Wonder” is a rare moment where Music for Men reclaims the power that made “Standing in the Way of Control”, both as a song and an album, so anthemic and unforgettable. But ultimately Music for Men really can’t compete with the loaded gun that was That’s Not What I’ve Heard, the glitter-painted firebomb of Standing in the Way of Control. Even the show-stopping “Men in Love” feels as though it thinks it’s more rebellious than it actually is. A “Chain of Fools” style chant of “shame, shame, shame”? The admonition to “dance like there’s nobody looking”? It’s catchy, as are most of the tracks here, but it’s all glitter and glitz and even if “everybody’s waking up with someone,” it just feels like a one-night stand. Ditto and co. have been miles beyond this for years now, and by turning to a tired sound without bringing any new ideas, they risk losing what made them so unique in the first place.