Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanne’: Album Review

Lady Gaga’s eight-year reign as a pop mainstay has felt both longer and shorter than that, because she’s already been through so many iterations. So many that by the release of her (technically) third album ARTPOP in 2013, she was already at the meta ars poetica phase of her career. Rather than a huge step forward artistically, ARTPOP was simply more of the art-damaged camp she had already explored. Suddenly there was a ceiling on her attempts at innovation and reinvention, and for the first time Gaga felt inessential to the modern pop fan.

The album was met with divisive critical reaction, disappointing sales and a tangible sense that her prominence in the zeitgest was slipping. In the intervening years, she changed management, doubled back with Tony Bennett on a full-length collection of jazz standards and performed a stellar Sound Of Music tribute at the 2015 Oscars — moves which felt like a detox from the perceived overindulgences of ARTPOP. It also repositioned her away from disruptor leader of a gang of “little monsters” toward that of a versatile showbiz veteran who made it through the good times and the bad thanks to the one thing she can always count on: her voice.

For better and for worse, that means the voice is the focus of her fourth proper studio album Joanne (out ). Real or not, Gaga has presented the image of a stripped down singer-songwriter who has put away the meat dresses and Warholian album covers in an attempt to find the artist underneath it all, the artist she was when she was making the rounds at dive bar drag shows in NYC in the early aughts. (Even her latest string of shows reflects this concept.) So while, yes, about 60 percent of the album is Gaga in a lower gear, over quieter production, this is still a Lady Gaga album, so “stripped down” means nearly every song drips with the quaking histrionics of a broadway showman.

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Lead single “Perfect Illusion” and opening track “Diamond Heart” could have been back-end filler songs on any of her previous albums, but instead of garish synths and heavy bass, both attempt to showcase Gaga’s rock and roll bonafides, showing that even in the era of poptimism, rock is still a signifier of authenticity. Replete with guitar squeals, kickdrum hearts and flashy credits (Mark Ronson, Kevin Parker, BloodpopJosh Homme), Gaga’s over-the-top vocal performance on both songs outweighs all that. She’s obviously trying so damn hard to sing the living Christ out of strained lyrics (that “It wasn’t laaaaaawwwvvveee” chorus becomes very grating very quickly), and it can be actively distracting to listen to.

The handful of Joanne’s more forgettable tracks are a hodgepodge of quiet ballads (the country-tinged “Million Reasons,” the well-intentioned “Angel Down”) and songs that feel like unnatural chart grabs (the hand-clappy “A-YO” gives shades of Meghan Trainor, “Come To Mama” cribs Ronson’s retro soul-pop bombast, “Dancin’ In Circles” calls upon the undying trends of trop house and polite Euro-tinged dance music). But the album’s highlights — the genuinely moving acoustic title track and Florence Welch duet “Hey Girl” — are both exciting glimpses of what Joanne could have been.

“Hey Girl” is full-on ’70s schmaltz and 80’s cheese-R&B, slinking around with pastel synths and a funky chord progression, while Gaga and Florence trade verses like friends dancing around the living room after sharing too many bottles of wine, playing feminist mad-libs with “Sexual Healing.” It’s a fun, unserious, kind of slight song by two of the biggest singers in the world, which in and of itself seems kind of radical. Likewise, “Joanne” is definitely the best example of the “real and personal” aesthetic Gaga has been talking up ahead of the album’s release, full of pretty guitar picking and arguably her best vocal performance on the album, one that finds her ditching the Broadway bravado while going full-on eccentric singer-songwriter with an off-kilter twang, leading up to a chorus that’s dramatic and soaring but not showy. Gaga earns the intimate sound of the title track, and it feels like one of the most vulnerable songs she’s ever written.

The problem with these two standouts is that they highlight what so many of the other tracks on Joanne failed to capture: Lady Gaga, unencumbered by the illusions and the theatrics, laying herself bare in her music. Considering she just recently claimed her  “whole life is a theater piece,” it seems she’s still more content to stand in front of a curtain on stage than to let listeners behind that curtain.

Score: 2.5/5

Patrick Bowman