Lady Gaga Joanne
When a pop star announces that their new album is the most “personal” of their career, I steel myself for what will probably be a pulverizingly self-important exercise in showing the fans what a deep and tortured artist they are. It’s usually a recipe for unlistenability.
Lady Gaga’s newest album, Joanne, is the most personal of her career – and it’s actually pretty great.
There’s been a lot of internet hand-wringing over this album as pop music connoisseurs struggle to put it in a neat little box, but its strength lies in its rejection of contemporary pop clichés and undeniable embrace of substance over style. This album has moments that could almost be called Americana; and onerous pitch correction is nowhere to be found. It’s a gutsy record that proves Gaga has no interest in crossing commercial swords with the flavor-of-the-week pop divas who briefly bubble up to the top of Spotify charts and then parlay the moment into a “career” as an Instagram celebrity. Good for her.
The very first track, “Diamond Heart”, wouldn’t be completely out of place on a Patti Smith album. It’s raw, open-sounding and a bit meandering. Written with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, “Diamond Heart” was a great choice to open the album. It wastes no time in declaring that this isn’t going to be a simple record.
The only truly anthemic dance/pop song on the entire album is “A-Yo”. It’s hard to imagine this song being anything other than a huge hit, but it’s also a bit of an outlier on Joanne. The vast majority of these tracks are either acoustic-driven or produced with enough openness to remain organic, so it’s probably not going storm the pop charts the way The Fame or Born this Way did. I think that’s a good thing for Gaga’s long-term career. She’s always been the pop superstar with true musicality, so consciously avoiding the pop game just gives her more gravitas. She’ll probably be making great records long after Ariana Grande is just an answer to a “pop stars of the 2010s” trivia question.
“Perfect Illusion” was the song that had the internet freaking out. Released ahead of the album as the first single, it’s simply a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll song. Gaga cowrote it with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala and it could easily be mistaken for an outtake from a mid-‘80s Pat Benatar album. The vocal is raw and raspy – in other words, it’s a rock vocal – so people online were dumbfounded. We’re in an era where there are a LOT of people who’ve never really heard a human voice on record. With most pop records, you’re hearing a computer algorithm as much as an actual voice, so a raw vocal is jarring to those who’ve listened exclusively to pop music for the last 15 years.
Overall, this is an extremely listenable album. The only song I found somewhat annoying is “Grigio Girls” – a fairly sophomoric celebration of sisterly love. It’s not that the song sucks, it’s just a bit too obvious. It’s the track I skip when I listen to Joanne, but there are enough strong moments on the album to make it barely worth mentioning.
For me, the two strongest songs are “Angel Down” and “Hey Girl”. Recorded as a duet with Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, “Hey Girl” has a soulfulness and groove that feels a bit like Hall and Oates. It’s a fantastic bit of soul pop.
“Angel Down” is the album’s opus and one of the best tracks of Lady Gaga’s career. It’s a sparse and dark ballad with real power. The “deluxe” edition of Joanne features a demo version of this song that’s worth the extra few bucks. The vast majority of recording artists will tell you they always prefer their original demos over the final, commercially-available product, so the inclusion of the “Angel Down” demo is no big surprise.
I think Joanne will be remembered as an important album in Lady Gaga’s career – the album where she abandoned some of her commercial focus and dug deeper into her undeniable artistry. Making that move will almost certainly hurt her sales, but the creative rewards should more than make up for it. I don’t think we’re going to hear another commercially-calculated dance/pop album from Gaga any time soon. She seems very comfortable in this new phase of her career, so if “Poker Face” and “Born this Way” are all you want to hear from her, you’re out of luck.
At least until her rent’s due.