BreatheHeavy’s Aaron Butterfield reviews Lady Gaga’s new album.
Lady Gaga returns with her fifth pop record, but is the absence of traditional pop to the detriment of Gaga’s latest effort?
In many ways, Lady Gaga’s newest effort was one of the most anticipated albums of 2016. Despite the lukewarm reaction to 2013’s ‘ArtPop’ and the considerable issues with her public persona, last year saw the Lady undergo a complete image rehabilitation. Performing a Julie Andrews medley at the Oscars, releasing of a powerful survival anthem (‘Til it Happens to You’), her acclaimed stint on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and being named Billboard’s Woman of the Year, all things seemed to suggest that Gaga was finally falling back into the public’s good graces with a more understated, minimalist image in direct contrast to the high-drama, try-hard character she’d spent the first six years of her career cultivating.
The question inevitably became whether the ‘new’ Gaga would translate onto her next pop record, or whether she’d return to her straight-forward pop roots. Teaming up with the likes of Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker, her next album was sure to be a change of pace, but perhaps no one could have foreseen to what extent. Trading her meat dress for denim shorts and her pop sensibilities for an acoustic guitar, Lady Gaga attempts her most drastic reinvention yet with ‘Joanne’, but to what extent does she succeed?
The album kicks off with the ultimately forgettable “Diamond Heart”, a track which appears to hark back to Stefani’s pre-Gaga days, go-go dancing in New York and searching for a record deal. As engaging as the often lyrics are, the song is let down by the lack of a memorable hook or any real sonic climax. Indeed, too many moments of ‘Joanne’ feel unmemorable, which is not a problem Gaga typically faces; no matter how poor parts of Gaga’s previous work may have been, they’ve rarely been forgettable, but girl power anthem “Grigio Girls” falls into a similar trap. Despite being nostalgic, and having some genuinely entertaining lyrics, the repetitive melodic structure is irritating at best and the song’s unlikely to stay with you for any meaningful length of time after the first listen.
Much of the conversation surrounding ‘Joanne’ has been in regards to Lady Gaga’s supposed departure from pop in favour of a more low-fi, country influenced sound, and although the change in influence has been largely overstated, the point at which she embraces the country potential of the record to its fullest are among the most successful moments of the album. Supposed second single “A-Yo”, although a little too similar to ‘ArtPop’ deep cut “MANiCURE”, is one of the strongest showings from Gaga and Ronson. What’s it actually about? No one knows, but it’s catchy and listenable, so live and let live. Similarly, “Sinner’s Prayer” and “John Wayne”, two of the most actively country and western influenced cuts, are highlights from the LP. “Sinner’s Prayer” may have worked better in its live arrangement on the Dive Bar Tour and “John Wayne” may suffer from the lack of a proper chorus, but both tracks utilise the analogue recording style of ‘Joanne’ to their ultimate benefit. And that’s not to mention the spoken word intro of “John Wayne” which is equal parts mad and amazing – a classic Gaga combination.
As with almost every Gaga album, there are, of course, a couple of objectively dreadful tracks, and perhaps the most disappointing aspect of ‘Joanne’ as an album campaign is that the worst moment on the record comes in the form of lead single, “Perfect Illusion”. The song ages better than an initial listen would suggest, but even with repeated exposure there’s no real way to argue that the irritating chord progression, juvenile rhythmic structure or ultimately grating key change contribute to a track which should have been included on the final cut of the record, much less as the lead single. The song not only fails to properly represent the sound and tone of the album as a whole, it’s simply not very good, and ‘Joanne’s’ inevitable failure to make the commercial impact it could have done will be due in large part to the disastrous misstep that was releasing “Perfect Illusion” as a single.
Another disappointing moment is Gaga’s collaboration with Florence & the Machine frontwoman, Florence Welch. Despite being one of the single most exciting artists working in 2016, Florence’s guest spot on the standard edition’s penultimate track isn’t as dramatic or exciting as the pairing would suggest. “Hey Girl” sets itself up as a song about female relationships and womanhood, but fails to say anything of substance whatsoever. Despite the lovely harmonies and endearing lyrics, there’s undoubtedly a sense that both artists are capable of so much more than “Hey Girl” would suggest.
“Hey Girl” shoots for understated and hits dull, but with title track “Joanne” and buzz single “Million Reasons”, Gaga’s aim for subtlety pays off in dividends. “Joanne” is arguably the most personal song we’ve heard from Gaga – a touching exploration of denial in the face of grief. On the other hand, “Million Reasons” is arguably the most relatable song we’ve heard from Gaga, capturing perfectly the end of a relationship and the frustration that accompanies having to give up on love before you’re truly ready to walk away. Both instrumentals are gorgeous and the songs feature some of Gaga’s best melodic work, but their downfall is that her strained and detached vocal style sits uncomfortably alongside the minimalistic product and writing. Gaga’s showy vocals may have worked on hits like “Poker Face” but here feels out of place.
There are, however, points at which the strain in her voice contributes beautifully to the overall quality of the record, none so much as album highlight “Angel Down”. The RedOne co-write is undoubtedly ‘Joanne’s’ most successful ballad and the best thing Gaga and Red have done together since 2009’s “Bad Romance”. In a song about Gaga’s immense dissatisfaction with the world as a whole, her cracked vocal only adds to the atmosphere of the track.
It’s important to note, however, that while “Angel Down” is a highlight, by and far the album’s crowning glory is ode to masturbation, “Dancin’ in Circles”. Ludicrous, catchy and innovative, “Dancin’ in Circles” is everything a Lady Gaga song should be. Despite being theoretically one of the album’s less ‘serious’ moments, it features Gaga’s best songwriting with some genuinely clever lyrics and punchlines – “up all night trying to rub the pain out” – and boasts the album’s best hook and a chord progression to rival the catchiness of Gaga’s hayday.
All things considered, it’s hard to argue that ‘Joanne’ isn’t Gaga’s most accomplished album since ‘The Fame Monster’. Leaving her all too often uneven and contrived attitude from ‘Born This Way’ and ‘ArtPop’ behind her, Gaga enters a far more authentic space with ‘Joanne’. Although not her most successful or seamless reinvention, we do seem to be getting closer to the core of who Lady Gaga is, but those expecting the songstress to lay herself entirely bare on this album may be disappointed. The most brilliant moments of ‘Joanne’ are when Gaga lets her guard down and Stefani Germanotta shines through, but they happen far more infrequently than the rhetoric she’s been peddling in interviews might suggest.
Steps towards a more honest Gaga are welcome, but her inability to commit to authenticity or to iron out her natural issues as a songwriter means that ‘Joanne’ is a very good album which ultimately fails to live up to its potential.