This article originally appeared on The Quietus
Since the beginning of the decade, Lady Gaga has been a figure who has constantly strived to inject pop music with a hefty dose of theatricality and over-the-top spectacle. From her outlandish outfits to even more grandiose videos, Gaga was a figure who injected a bit of colour and even an element of the avant-garde into her work.
Unfortunately, that ethos hasn’t always extended into her music. Gaga released arguably her weakest album to date, Artpop, in 2013. On it, she wanted art and pop to collide, but it ended up being a collection of relatively middle-of-the-road contemporary pop songs. Its lead single ‘Applause’ was gratingly self-congratulatory, declaring that “art’s in pop culture in me.” Even on arguably its best track, ‘Do What U Want,’ Gaga’s thinly veiled kiss-off to the paparazzi and invasive press attention was marred by R Kelly’s completely unrelated guest verse about taking shots and “getting naughty” in the club.
Meanwhile, over the last couple of years in particular, Gaga’s more avant-garde tendencies have steadily trickled into other areas of the mainstream. Nicki Minaj’s stage persona is built on garish, deliberately (and increasingly) vulgar outfits, while Sia sings from under a huge black and white wig as teenager Maddie Ziegler performs interpretive dance around her. Even Miley Cyrus has stepped further into oddball pop territory, collaborating extensively with The Flaming Lips. At least in terms of aesthetics, the mainstream pop landscape is a little stranger than back in 2013. So is there still room for Lady Gaga to shock and surprise in 2016?
The answer is yes, though not in the way you might expect. Last year, Gaga co-wrote and performed ‘Til It Happens To You’, a song for the documentary The Hunting Ground, which dealt with the issue of campus rape in America. It missed out on winning Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, and was probably the most emotional song Gaga had ever performed. It proved that underneath the glitz, she was actually human. Her new album, Joanne, continues down that more emotionally wrought route, and does so partially by embracing a much more roots-based sound, aided by a wealth of big-name musicians. Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme lends guitar riffs, Beck helped to write ‘Dancin’ in Circles’ and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker produced first single ‘Perfect Illusion’.
The foray into more muted country pop isn’t particularly surprising. After all, mainstream country across the years is relatively known for toeing a line between sincerity and showmanship that suits Gaga’s persona perfectly. Cynicism aside though, the move really does help to bring out Gaga’s best asset: her voice. In the past, her malleable, theatrical vocals were only really given a proper workout on occasional covers of jazz standards and duets with Tony Bennett. On Joanne, she’s finally given room to flex her vocal chords on her own terms. With the tender title track (a tribute to her late aunt) and ‘Million Reasons’ in particular, Gaga has never sounded better, her voice reaching powerful highs and quivering with emotion often in the tight space of a couple of lines. On ‘Hey Girl’ she wins a clash of the vocals against Florence Welch. She exercises restraint when needed while Welch’s voice consistently strains across a melody that’s remarkably reminiscent of Elton John’s ‘Bennie & The Jets’. A surprising highlight comes in the form of ‘Sinner’s Prayer’, which features Father John Misty contributing some drums and other light musical touches. While it doesn’t have the lush orchestration found on her collaborator’s records, it does feature something that’s often been lacking in many of Gaga’s previous works: sincerity and self-awareness. “I am what I am, and I don’t want to break the heart of any other man but you” she sings, sounding both earnest and comfortable with the fact that she’s far from being perfect. It’s refreshing to hear the once apparently infallible singer recognise her own faults.
Gaga doesn’t completely let go of her impenetrable pop persona on Joanne, though. Indeed, she has promoted the album with a tour of US clubs called the ‘Dive Bar Tour’ and dressed in full country regalia: yet another costume to hide behind. ‘Perfect Illusion,’ though strident and forceful in its delivery, is a brash synthpop number, as is opener ‘Diamond Heart’ once it gets past the guitar-driven bridge. ‘A-Yo’ is a pretty run-of-the-mill modern pop song that could have been performed by any number of interchangeable singers.
Added into the mix is the faux-dancehall vibe of ‘Dancin’ in Circles’, which might have come straight from Rihanna or Drake if the melody hadn’t already been lifted almost entirely wholesale from Gaga’s own hit ‘Alejandro’. It flirts with the idea of masturbation, but isn’t the fiery explosion of words you’d might expect from a collaboration between Gaga and Beck. Instead, Gaga sounds slightly awkward on the subject, reeling in her own vocal performance. Even when she yells out the song’s refrain towards the end of the track, it’s easy to get the impression that she’s simply acting like she’s losing her inhibitions to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Tove Lo and Hailee Steinfeld, who have both had hits singing about masturbation. It’s an instance where Gaga still seems to be keeping one eye firmly on the charts, which is holding her back from truly letting go.
Unfortunately, therein lies the biggest problem with Joanne: for every time that Gaga seemingly breaks free of her shackles and embraces something more “real,” she quickly scuttles back into her comfort zone and hides behind glistening production. This probably isn’t quite the sound of the real Stefani Germanotta, but if you squint hard enough there’s a semblance of a real person in amongst the pop haze.