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The Long-Awaited Return of Beth Ditto

Just in time for summer, her new solo album "Fake Sugar" is an '80s power-disco confection.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Gucci

Beth Ditto is an excellent celebrity. As the lead singer of Gossip (formerly The Gossip), she sang with an angry volume that stirred the guts. She’s extremely attractive but she doesn’t look like any other famous women. She’s open about being gay, which the culture can always do with more of. And in 2013 she was arrested for being drunk and yelling “Obama!” in the street, blocking traffic, thus cementing her place in America’s heart.

When Ditto became famous in the mid-‘00s, there was nobody like her around. And really, there still isn’t. Ditto doesn’t stand for one particular transgressive identity. Lesbian, fat, from a poor background, ferociously talented—she is all of these things at once, which immunizes her against fetishization. A woman artist who is both a human being and an avant-garde stylist in the public imagination is a rare thing indeed, and Ditto has been gone for too long.

The singer is back, and she’s grown out her eyebrows. Her hair is longer too, and the whole charismatic package is sexier, more accessible. Her debut solo album is called Fake Sugar (available to stream via NPR). The lead single “Fire” spreads Ditto’s soulful vocals over a pelvic bassline. It’s not a particularly emotional song, but the dive-bar groove of “Fire” makes up in shimmy-ability what it lacks in feeling. The video boasts hot, rough-cheeked cowboys line-dancing.

What made Gossip so good is present in much of this album. Songs like “Savoir Faire” and “Go Baby Go” maintain that feel of a disco beat being administered by heavy machinery, while Ditto’s voice dances around cool guitar licks and sassy lyrics (“Don’t waste your time on a man who won’t commit”). The standout track of the album’s heavier element is “Oh My God,” the only song to really ravage the feelings. It’s about seeing somebody across the room and feeling you’ll go crazy if you don’t touch her. “I don’t care what anybody thinks of me,” Ditto sings. “Oh my god!” It’s the one moment where the intensity of Ditto’s voice is matched by the words she’s singing.

Much on Fake Sugar is significantly lighter, and the lyrics are not that complex. On love songs like “In and Out” and “Lover,” Ditto pulls her disco sensibility into a new and pretty sugar-pop zone. They’re just as ‘80s-inspired as the classic Gossip soul/punk screamers, but the new gentleness is interesting. It gives her voice more room, revealing a Stevie Nicks-like talent for melody rippling with a hint of warble. The strangest pop moment comes in the title track “Fake Sugar,” which sounds like Emmylou Harris singing a Paul Simon song: not unpleasant, but odd.

The best of Ditto’s new pop streak is “We Could Run,” a piece of wistful, Springsteeny Americana. The chorus is one of those long screeches that have anchored the biggest pop hits in recent years, from singers like Katy Perry and Sia. America is primed to listen to a woman howling over a pretty song, and “We Could Run” could be big.

Ditto has lost and gained much in recent years. She got married a couple of years ago, and seems very happy with her wife Kristin Ogata. But that same year her best friend Nathan Howdeshell, co-founder of Gossip, moved home to Arkansas and effectively ended the band. He got “really into God,” Ditto told the Guardian, which felt like a regression, even a “relapse.” “It felt like losing somebody to the past,” Ditto said, as he returned to the world that they had escaped from. “It felt like a creative death.”

Considering all this upheaval trailing just behind her, I couldn’t help but wish that Ditto’s album might connect more deeply to her feelings, express more violently or intensely her experiences. The issue is not that Ditto has lost any sort of credibility with her move towards pop. It’s just that this new sound is more gentle and fun, and her voice is so well-suited to the rawer side of life.

But that would be to demand of Beth Ditto what I want from her, and she does not seem the type to take requests.