Well I gotta be honest I certainly wasn’t expecting what we got with this album. Usually with a drastic overhaul in sound and image one can infer that perhaps all is not well within the camp of the artist. Often it’s some sort of existential crisis that underlies this type of thing. But with a figure like Lady Gaga you can never really be so sure. As someone whose sort of made a career out of provoking reactions of confusion and generally just being fuckin’ weird, at least compared to the bland inoffensiveness of many other pop stars (you don’t see Selena Gomez wearing a dress made out of meat, now do ya?), making any sort of guesses about what exactly is going through her head is a bit of a crapshoot. Her music was even harder to dissect. I could never really tell if she was ironically trying to deconstruct the idea of pop music to some bizarre meta-concept idealization or if she was being completely sincere, although I suspect it was sort of a combination of both. Not that the mixed signals was a problem; I’m pretty sure that was her exact intention. It worked really well, and if we all admit that the early 2010s was a horrible time for pop music like we all should (deep down, you know it to be true), Lady Gaga was certainly an exception.
But all that’s only the prologue to what were talking about here. Three years and one unexpected trad-jazz covers album later, she drops Joanne, reinforcing everything I just said while at the same time sort of calling it into question. Remember what I said earlier about blurring the line between sincerity and elaborate parody? This new record takes that to a whole new level. And, like I said at the top of the review, I really wasn’t expecting that. If anything, after the somewhat lukewarm response to her last album Artpop, I predicted that she would retreat into the successful formulas of her first two albums. Instead, Gaga decided to really go out on a limb with this one.
Correction, she decided to go out several limbs. One of the things that really characterizes Joanne, at least for me, is how all over the place it is stylistically. She never really commits to one overall musical theme here. As a fan of genre-hopping artists in general, I can certainly admire the tangential nature of a lot of these songs, even if not all of them work entirely. For instance, “Come to Mama” is a sort of undigested, whole cloth doo-wop song that at best seems more like a tribute to a neglected sound than a fully formed idea, and at worst is a sickening reminder of a certain horrible doo-wop inspired Meghan Trainor song from last year that shall not be named. She does, however, adapt to other styles really well. Album opener “Diamond Heart” is a surprisingly effective rock song, and the title track (one of the best songs on the record in my opinion) comes together as a great Rubber Soul-style folk-pop number.
But the real centerpiece of the record is “Million Reasons”. By far the best track on the album, I feel it’s the moment where the more exposed, personal vibe she’s going for shines through the most, and even as a relatively quiet ballad it hits harder than any of the bangers on the album. In fact, it’s probably the most straightforward we’ve ever seen Lady Gaga. Her vocal performance is dynamic and powerful, and the subdued instrumentation helps to highlight it. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about this song. It’s the most “real” track on the record, and I feel like it would have made for a better climactic moment than the actual album closer “Angel Down”.
One thing that I can say links most of the tracks here is a sort of twangy, desert music element that some people are interpreting as Lady Gaga’s foray into country music, which, with the exception of the deliciously honky-tonky saloon tune “Sinner’s Prayer”, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with for the most part. There’s a friggin’ sitar on one of the songs, what country album has a sitar? One thing that surprised me about the production of the album is the involvement of rock’s resident cool guy Josh Homme of stoner metal legends Queens of the Stone Age. He has a few writing credits and plays guitar and drums on some of the tracks, and I would attribute most of the “desert-y” vibe to him. However, Gaga’s main collaborator for this project was the seemingly omnipresent super-producer Mark Ronson. It seems like a good fit; both trade in an idyllic view of pop music of the past. But here, both work in an area of music that neither are particularly known for.
And that’s what you want from Lady Gaga right? Something unexpected? If she were to become too predictable, it would rob her of a lot of the appeal her persona carries. I get the feeling that this odd venture into a musical style you wouldn’t necessarily associate her with isn’t going to be permanent. She’s gotten to a point where she can sort of do whatever she wants with her music and her fans are most likely going to be on board with it. After all, her songwriting hasn’t changed all that much, it just has a much different texture this time around.
Least Favorite Track: