If there is one thing Lady Gaga could fairly be criticised for in the past it’s over-promising and over-hyping (Album of the decade! Reverse Warholian expedition! Redefining social media!) and whilst I’m sure there will be time for that yet the pre-release campaign for Joanne has been the polar opposite. Delivered with little fanfare, a low-key cover and a lead single that hardly set the world on fire, my expectations for this album were low. The two following buzz tracks struck a much better chord but I still expected this to be a grower, perhaps even slightly hard work to love. However, to my surprise I was knocked off my feet by half way through the first track and never looked back. There is a larger cautionary tale here about not to judging an album by the disembodied parts of it thrown out into the world before it’s launch but this has been one of the most extreme cases of going from trepidation to adoration in one listen that I have experienced.
The artwork suggested something stripped back and ernest (Gaga’s Back to Basics if you will) whilst the lead single suggested fairly faceless pop with a Pat Benatar edge. The implicit desire to simplify and be ‘authentic’ felt somewhat forced and I dreaded a renouncement of her previous pop lives. In practice however the album has surprisingly frequent lashings of pure Gaga and is in a way perhaps the most successful, distilled embodiment of her long-running desire to fuse the serious and the frivolous, credible and throwaway, art and pop. The personal nature of the title feels a little laboured in this context but the song itself is touching without being overly saccharin.
It should be no revelation that she might do something less ‘theatrical’ at some point but being Gaga it is still essentially dress up. Contradictory as always her concept of what is artifice or construct has always been at odds with the rest of the world – for her the artifice is authentic and I would suggest that Joanne is really no different at its heart. For all it’s corded mic swinging and crowd surfing the video for Perfect Illusion remains one of the campest things I’ve seen. For her there has long been a kind of infinity mirror of artifice in the stripping away of artifice – visualised in moments such as her onstage costume change on the Artpop tour or the photo of her wrecked nails in an after-acrylics monster claw.
This is by no means some kind of purist country record but what is, in the great tradition of musical ciphers like Gaga, is a pleasing mush of reference points across the gamut of country, americanna, rock and salsa and where this album really shines is when she mixes those flashes of trademark bonkers with vocals and lyrics that have hit a lusher more refined stride.
A surprisingly strong and far less embarrassing outing than it could so easily have been Joanne stands comfortably, stetson tilted, amongst her best work.
Track by track
Her strongest album opener this starts with a cool Courtney / Fleetwood drawl, leading us down a musical road we think we know before turning several unexpected turns into the kind of cross genre ferocity only Gaga can do. If Swine was a song attempting to get the anger, bile and rage of rape out into a poppers o’clock rave song then this is it’s whisky soaked 3am sister.
A fun, poppy clap-along little track.
The purest and most successful no-whistles ballad she has written to my mind. Gorgeous vocals, touching lyrics and a melody that pulls at your emotions without becoming naff.
Pure Gaga in the vein of much of Born This Way but wrapped around a chunky country strut extolling the joys of a cowboy lover.
Dancin’ in circles
it sounds like Shakira and it’s about masturbation – what’s not to like?
As is often the way this works much better as part of the album than on its own.
A melodic, harmony strewn ballad that is the closest to the type of country-lite the album seemed likely to be before release.
This toes a fine line between being almost pastiche, particularly in the chorus, and something that actually has a fair amount of depth to it but the combination works. Her vocal is particularly wonderful on this track – deep, rich and warm.
Come To Mama
Completely daft, OTT musical hall with more than a dash of McCartney – and lyrically pure hippy silliness. It’s a standout for me but will be marmite for sure.
The hook is pure Bennie & The Jets but although Gaga and Florence sound great together the melody leaves me a little cold, the only song on the album that veers towards MOR R&B.
A standout track reminiscent of the more hymnal moments of Brandon Flowers’ Flamingo, or at least of their shared influences. A mournful dirt-track protest song.
Another standout track for me. One of those songs intended to be sung along to at 3am, dunk with your best friends whilst railing against the injustices of life and fittingly includes a Spice Girls namecheck. Makes me oddly weepy.
Just another Day
A very Scissors Sisters esque jazzy melody. Although the album proper ends with Angel Down and the deluxe tracks with the work tape of the same song this is definitely a sweeter, lighter way to finish if you want it.
ARTIST: Lady Gaga
MOOD: Nancy: ‘I look like fucking Stevie Nicks’