Genre: Dance Pop/Soft Rock
Producer: Mark Ronson, Lady Gaga, BloodPop
Release Date: October 21, 2016
Lady Gaga is probably the most iconic pop star of the 2010’s. While there are other artists that could be argued to be bigger and influential – Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, for example – none of them have managed to create such a distinct image and persona around themselves. She has fashioned herself as an eccentric performer and the matron saint of all the freaks and outcasts, which is quite an accomplishment given that her musical output is about as bog-standard mainstream pop as bog-standard mainstream pop can get.
But there’s only so far you can go by shocking people with weird music videos and dresses made of bacon and Kermit the Frog dolls. Thus, on her fourth studio album, titled Joanne, Gaga reinvents herself as a songstress sitting behind a piano a lá Billy Joel and Sir Elton John. The soundscape has become more organic and band-oriented, and the lyrical content has become folksier, with song titles such as “Come to Mama”, “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Angel Down”.
Gaga’s image shift is not complete, however; she balances somewhere in the in-between, one leg firmly planted in her dance-pop past, the other treading new, rootsier ground, probably barefoot and towards a nearby encampment of dirty travelling hippies. This works in her advantage, as now her transformation is not too stark as to scare off the old fans, while also preventing artistic stagnation; it is the clause through which pop tracks like “Perfect Illusion” and “A-Yo” can coexist on the album with the piano ballads “A Million Reasons” and the title track without horrible style clashes.
Unfortunately Gaga is not quite the wordsmith as she might fancy herself. This was fine when she focused on more dance-oriented music; songs like “Bad Romance” were meant to make you dance, rather than ponder the deep metaphysical questions presented by phrases like “Rah Rah Ah Ah Ah / Ro Mah Ro Mah Mah / Gaga Oh La La”. Now that Gaga has jumped into the deep end of the pool, drawing comparisons to Regina Spektor, Joanna Newsom and Tori Amors rather than Ke$ha or Katy Perry, it becomes glaringly obvious that she doesn’t have the lyrical chops to pull this off. Already the first rhyme of the album is painfully forced “Young wild American / Lookin’ to be somethin’”. The otherwise competent “Dancin’ in Circles” is a masturbation metaphor that forgets to be a metaphor, which would be bold if it didn’t create so much unintentional comedy. Fortunately most of the lyrics are passable, and Gaga manages to convey enough emotion through her vocal performance to undo the of the damage the lyrics might’ve caused.
On track “Hey Girl” Gaga is joined by Florence Welch, but unfortunately the empowerment duet that looks good on paper is less than the sum of its parts. Gaga’s usual soundscape is much smaller than the baroque echo chamber usually backing Welch’s bombastic howling: as a result her voice sounds constrained, a fish too big for its bowl.
Lady Gaga’s reimagining of herself is mostly successful, despite the occasionally sketchy lyricism. The soundscape seems though-out and authentic, and Gaga herself shows off her vocal talent possible better than every before. Joanne is a positive surprise, and probably the most grounded, coherent and nuanced Lady Gaga album to date.