Say what you want about Lady Gaga, but she’s never boring. It’s almost impossible to look at her today and see the same pop culture obsessed songstress that sang about disco sticks and paparazzi. Even 2011’s Born This Way, which its truly laughable cover art, seems like it happened a lifetime ago, and hopefully we’ve all forgotten about ARTPOP by now.
More recently, Gaga has ditched the antics (somewhat) and tried to move away from the niche in pop music she carved out for herself with her debut The Fame and its excellent follow up The Fame Monster. One could argue this ‘transition’ began with Born This Way, an album that tackled many different genres, but that album still felt rooted in pop despite its eclectic track listing. When she released Cheek To Cheek, her jazz duet album with legend Tony Bennett, and sang the Sound of Music tribute at the Oscars a few years ago it was clear she was aiming for something different altogether. Since then, she has won a Golden Globe, been nominated for an Oscar, starred on two seasons of American Horror Story, been cast in the remake of A Star Is Born, performed a tribute to the late David Bowie and sang the National Anthem. Now, her fifth studio album, her first solo offering in three years, Joanne, is out, and next year she will headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Joanne, named for Gaga’s late aunt, continues the singer’s move away from songs like “Just Dance” and “Bad Romance.” Sonically, it’s rooted in folk-rock with a country tinge; if you’re looking for a close relative within Gaga’s discography, it has more in common with Yoü and I than anything else. But even that song seems more obviously catchy than most of what makes up Joanne‘s track list. And while the razor sharp hooks that made “Poker Face” and “Telephone” such indelible hits are gone, the guitar in “Diamond Heart” and “Sinner’s Prayer” prove she still knows how to lodge her music in your ear.
After my first couple of listens, I was truly puzzled by the inclusion of lead single “Perfect Illusion.” Coming in as the sixth track, it’s bookended by the sinister, reggae-esque ode to masturbation “Dancin’ In Circles” and the quieter ballad “Million Reasons.” Its disco-rock production, which has Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker’s fingerprints all over the final third of the song, doesn’t resemble anything else on the album. The chorus sees Gaga yelling “It wasn’t laaahve! It wasn’t laaahve!/It was a Perfect Illusion!/Perfect Illusion/Mistaken for laaahve!”as if she was performing in a stadium, and comes off as jarring when juxtaposed with the rest of the album. But after a few more listens, I began to get it.
The live performances of songs like “A-YO” made it clear though, that Gaga was working this character of a chick with a guitar pretty hard, and then “Perfect Illusion,” made sense; suddenly the album began to feel undeniably Gaga. For all of its stripped down raw sound, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, Joanne still feels really theatrical in the same way Gaga’s Sound of Music tribute did, or her live rendition of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” And while the image of Gaga as a Nashville dive-bar country star evokes on this album may feel a bit insincere (in a way her fame obsessed alter-ego from The Fame could never) it’s clear she really loves this music; she sounds better, and more animated than anything on the EDM hodge-podge that was ARTPOP.
Joanne does sag a bit; the title track, though heartfelt, features lyrics that make song feel like filler rather than a necessary addition. “Come to Mama” feels like a half-baked country jingle, and though it has grown on me, “Million Reasons” still feels hollow. But when she hits her mark, she really hits it. “Diamond Heart” is an excellent album opener, with an energy that’s continued in “AYO.” “John Wayne” is a lot of fun, while “Dancin’ In Circles” brings the album to a high it inched towards in the beginning. The closer, “Angel Down,” is downright gorgeous, but if there’s a standout though it’s the “Hey Girl.” Featuring the angelic vocals of Florence Welch, the song is steeped in funk; it sounds like it’s the love child of Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Telephone Line.”
In a sense, Joanne feels like the album that should have come after Born This Way. And while it doesn’t reach the highs of The Fame Monster, it’s far more cohesive, consistent and sharp than anything on ARTPOP including the self-aware “Applause” and synth-pop R&B tinged “Do What U Want.” But that it’s come at all is a reason to celebrate. As “Perfect Illusion” slips farther and farther down the charts, many predicted this would be a failure for Gaga. While the jury is still out on how well this album will fare commercially, Joanne sees a newly rejuvenated and impassioned Gaga not totally straying away from her theatrical roots while managing to do something she’s never done before. She manages to stick the landing.
*** Essential Tracks: “Diamond Heart,” “A-YO,” “Dancin’ In Circles,” “Hey Girl,” “Angel Down”***