Review Summary: A refreshing course correction
I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about Lady Gaga over the past few years. Having gotten hooked upon my initial listen of “Bad Romance,” I’d become the ultimate Gaga apologist. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut album and loved Born This Way
even more. Despite the occasionally head-scratching production choices on that record, (remember those cluttered synth belches on the title track") I still admired Gaga for blazing her own trail and making overly-indulgent music that was genuinely fun. However, by the time ARTPOP
rolled around in 2013, she seemed to be falling off the deep end. The songs were still great, but many of them signaled Gaga’s shift into a land of wildly unfocused maximalism. While her previous albums had been generally coherent, ARTPOP
was just plain confusing. Piano ballads, hip-hop bangers, and self-described “complextro” EDM tracks were all presented alongside each other, making it unclear whether Gaga even had a trademark sound or target audience anymore. The album’s promotional campaign was even more of a mess: the singer spent time exhibiting VOLANTIS (a flying dress) while her lead single was flopping on the charts. Gaga had always been campy, but this was a whole new level of bizarre self-parody. To myself and many others, it appeared that Mother Monster had finally reached “peak weird,” putting her art ahead of her pop and suffering the consequences.
Luckily, after the album failed to achieve its sales goals, Gaga herself must’ve reached the same conclusion. She stepped away from music to focus on an acting career, and in her few public performances in the years after ARTPOP
, she shed her meat-wearing, egg-birthing persona in favor of a much more natural, classy one that put the focus where it should’ve been all along: her voice
. And damn, does she have a good one. Gaga’s Sound of Music
performance at the Oscars and her 2014 jazz album with Tony Bennett both felt like breaths of fresh air, reminding fans why they’d gotten hooked on her all those years ago. In Joanne
, her first solo record since ARTPOP
, Gaga continues this trend.
The truly striking thing about Joanne
is the production. Gone are the days of RedOne’s messy, jumbled synthesizers that filled Born This Way
and the cleaner, albeit generic EDM stylings of Zedd and Madeon that plagued many tracks on ARTPOP
. When you’ve reached Gaga’s level of fame, you can literally get anyone
on your album, so there’s no excuse to settle for second-rate artists. Thankfully, she did just the opposite and gathered several excellent musicians to have a hand in the writing and production of Joanne
(the album was produced by Mark Ronson, with contributions from Josh Homme and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker). The difference is almost night and day. Simpler, more minimalistic numbers like “Sinner’s Prayer” (co-written by Father John Misty) provide a lovely sense of spacious airiness that was absent in the claustrophobia of her previous work. In fact, the only moment that brings back memories of cluttered tracks like “Swine” is the awkward electronic chorus of “John Wayne,” which sounds like something Porter Robinson would cook up after getting high and trading in all of his anime DVDs for old western movies. Even the more upbeat dance songs like “Perfect Illusion” feature grooves that are tighter and more focused than previous Gaga hits, demonstrating the positive impact of working with a more talented producer like Ronson. It’s also a tighter record overall, clocking in at only 11 tracks as opposed to the 14-15 on past albums.
has been described by some as a “country album,” which is a label that doesn’t quite fit. Although many of its tracks are certainly influenced by country, there are also clear homages to the hippie anthems and smooth soul jams of the 60’s and 70’s. By cataloging several different styles that have helped shape American music, Joanne
is first and foremost a sonic journey through the USA. On “Diamond Heart,” the album’s glammy autobiographical opener, Gaga describes herself as a “young, wild American looking to be something,” so if a label for the album is necessary, “Americana” might work the best. In many moments, Gaga displays a Springsteenian reverence for the red, white, and blue that seems like a natural extension of the themes explored on Born This Way
. “A-YO” is a rollicking, grunt-filled romp full of dizzy guitar flourishes, and the Beck-penned masturbation anthem “Dancin’ In Circles” feels like an old square-dance tune with a musky reggae makeover. Indeed, the most exciting moments of Joanne
are when these traditional Western sounds are updated and reimagined for the twenty-first century. Other songs take a more standard, back-to-basics approach that still pays off quite nicely. Despite being a bit cliché, “Million Reasons” features one of Gaga’s strongest vocal performances, and the title track is a hauntingly beautiful Beatles-esque elegy for her late aunt- the album’s namesake. Over a sparse guitar and a few pattering handclaps, Gaga asks Joanne, “girl, where do you think you’re going"” It’s the most earnest and raw thing she’s ever recorded, and a clear highlight from the album.
Unfortunately, this earnestness is mostly lost in the last few tracks, which see Gaga attempting to tackle society’s ills in an extremely clumsy fashion. Although meaningful lyricism has never been her forte, “Come to Mama” takes things to a new low, with Gaga wondering “why do we gotta fight over ideas"” and making the brilliant proposition that “everybody’s gotta love each other.” It’s just as cringe-worthy as it sounds, and many fans have pointed out that it feels more like a Christmas jingle than a genuine pop song. In a similar vein, “Angel Down” is a protest anthem about gun violence with all the subtlety you’d expect from the woman who once sang about riding a disco stick. The dark, orchestral production sounds totally out of place, and it’s a shame that the whole thing goes out on such a whimper. Thankfully, these are the only two duds on the album, and they’re sandwiched around its best song. “Hey Girl” is a slinky slice of retro soul featuring Florence Welch, and it’s easily the best Gaga collaboration track ever. Over a shimmering synth line, the two women sing of the newfound solidarity and admiration they share for one another, potentially- but not definitively- hinting at a deeper romantic connection. It’s a gorgeous piece of work by two of the world’s most talented vocalists, and they occupy the track in perfect symmetry, with neither voice taking precedence over the other.
is comparable to anything, it would be Beyoncé’s Lemonade
. Both albums feature incredible female singers with well-established careers showcasing their versatility and vulnerability while also making larger political statements. Even though Gaga’s statements fall flat, her versatility on this album is arguably more impressive than that of Beyoncé. After all, while Lemonade
followed the release of another critically and commercially acclaimed album, Joanne
comes after Gaga’s most polarizing and alienating record. She had something to prove here, and she succeeded. Gaga has demonstrated herself to be a musical chameleon who can perform across a multitude of genres while remaining authentic and genuine. Joanne
isn’t a complete reinvention of her sound; it’s a revival that further improves upon it.
This isn’t Gaga’s best album- to me that honor remains with Born This Way
, which still contains her most iconic tracks despite featuring some lackluster production. Hopefully, though, Joanne
will be the album that cements her legacy as a full-fledged musician
, not just a passing fad. Yes, she stumbles occasionally, but that’s to be expected from an artist as brazen as Gaga. When she’s good, she’s fantastic. When she’s bad, it’s always due to a surplus of ambition rather than a lack of talent. She might not be flawless, but she has a diamond heart.