by Mark Cruikshank
With a three year break from the pop scene, after the less than successful conceptual album ‘ARTPOP’, Lady Gaga is back with her latest release ‘Joanne’.
Earning herself five Grammys from her first couple of albums, Gaga catapulted herself into fame and fortune from the start of her career. After slowly losing her ability to hold people’s attention during her ‘ARTPOP’ era, she came back in 2014 with the release of ‘Cheek to Cheek’, a collaborative jazz album with the world renowned crooner Tony Bennett which saw her nab another Grammy.
When the first single from ‘Joanne’ dropped, it was unclear what would be expected from Gaga’s fifth release, or if she could salvage her slightly waning pop career. ‘Perfect Illusion’ was a pop rock song with a heavy use of synthesisers and was so different to anything Gaga had done before that it left fans stumped as to what was coming next – they were screaming ‘IT WASN’T LOVE’ at the top of their lungs, but they were stumped nevertheless.
Now that the album is released, it is clear what musical treat the ‘Bad Romance’ singer has been brewing up for the past three years…a truly incredible country pop album.
Starting off slow and subtle, ‘Diamond Heart’ introduces us to the album. It is an autobiographical track in which Gaga takes us through the beginnings of her career. It explores her time as working as a go-go dancer to pay her way as she worked on her music, and being sexually assaulted during the early process of trying to be a star. Although the subject matter is rather dark, the song itself is an upbeat electronic rock song with a slight country twist. Gaga is using this track to strip away the persona of ‘Lady Gaga’ and re-introduce herself as who she is behind the wigs and clothing, an incredible vocalist. You can hear the beautiful roughness in her voice as she shows off her range through the subtle verses before the roaring chorus.
Gaga’s focus on her vocals continues onto the second track ‘A-YO’, a more obvious country track with Gaga filling lyrical gaps with country yelps and a few country guitar licks. ‘A-YO’ is an infectious mix of old and new elements of country while still retaining traces of that catchy pop that Gaga is known for. As it is a song about ignoring the people who try and bring you down and powering through to success it has been dubbed by many as ‘Shake It Off Part 2’. However, this song is much more musically complex and enjoyable than Taylor Swift’s almost irritating pop endeavour.
Moving gently into the title track ‘Joanne’, we hear a more dreamlike and emotional side to Gaga’s voice. As the song is a tribute to her late aunt, Gaga uses a stripped back production and a very raw vocal convey her emotions. With a very Beatles sounding outro, this is the first song on the album to show that this project is more than just a conventional pop or country album, but has a sound that is influenced from many different strands of music.
‘John Wayne’, track number four, is one of the most energetic and fun songs on the record, with Queens of the Stone Age member Josh Homme playing both guitar and drums on this track, this ode to a cowboy has a rockier edge to it. It is one of the more obvious tracks to someday become a single as its inclusion of voice and instrumental manipulation make it sound more chart friendly than many of the other cuts on this album.
As ‘Joanne’ continues, it becomes clear that it would not be a Gaga album if there was not a little bit of a risque song that made the grade. ‘Dancin’ In Circles’ is that song – but when it’s co-written by Beck it is almost given a pass for how dirty the subject matter is. This is a stand out songs on the album mostly due to its unique style. It follows Gaga’s new country theme, but contains a Latin sounding twist with Indian elements during the chorus. Even though it sounds like it should not work whatsoever, it just does and you will want to sing it everywhere you go. However, when you listen to the song, it will become clear why it may not be wise to sing it anywhere else but alone in the comfort of your own home.
After ‘Dancin’ In Circles’, we go into the two songs that had been released previous to the release of ‘Joanne’: ‘Perfect Illusion’ and ‘Million Reasons’. While both are truly great songs – ‘Perfect Illusion’ gaining a great review from Brig itself – it is hard to figure out their place on this album. When talking about ‘Perfect Illusion’ in an interview with Sway, Gaga stated that she ‘wouldn’t say that song is indicative of the sound on the whole record’ and her comment is correct. The album throws you into an experience that sounds like it is produced independently from the rest of the album. To then go straight into ‘Million Reasons’, a slow, emotional piano and guitar ballad, is an abrupt transition. Again, while both independently phenomenal songs their presence on this album, especially right in the middle, is very confusing.
With Sean Lennon – son of John Lennon – on slide guitar, Gaga furthers her move away from conventional pop music with ‘Sinner’s Prayer’. It is an all-out country track that could be played in a honky-tonk and follows Gaga’s search for forgiveness for her past mistakes. The backing track is made up of a standard country ensemble, there is a solid beat throughout and it is perfectly underproduced to the extent that it sounds like a recording of a live performance. It does take a while to get used to the new direction of the familiar voice, but after a few listens it becomes clear that it is clearly one of the best songs on the record.
Following on from ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ is a revisit to The Beatles inspiration on Gaga with ‘Come To Mama’, a saxophone heavy toe tapper. This relaxed tune sounds like it was lifted straight out of the 1960s but fits perfectly in the album. It sounds like a warm hug from Mother Monster herself as she sings about everyone loving one another, a sentiment that continues in the penultimate track of the album ‘Hey Girl’. The soulful duet with Florence Welch – lead singer of British band Florence and the Machine – has the structure of a conversation rather than each singer delivering their own verse and follows the two singer’s discussion of how women should support each other. The impact of Welch’s work is evident in this track with the introduction of a harp a Florence and the Machine staple, in this psychedelic pop tune.
Bringing ‘Joanne’ to a close is a track inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, ‘Angel Down’. In usual Gaga style, she uses her work to comment on the state of society with this closing ballad. She sings about the ‘chaos’ of today’s world, focusing primarily on the shootings that have been occurring in America shouting: “Where are our leaders?, in frustration during the chorus of the song. It is a slow and beautiful piece backed by no obvious melody but drawn out notes that sound like a choir of angels with intermittent rings that sound like a child’s music box. Layered with the guitar and piano, all of these elements come together to create a stunningly beautiful and emotional end to the album.
From rock music to country, synth tracks to piano ballads, singing about family to singing about sex, Lady Gaga does it all in ‘Joanne’. Moving away from writing an album about a concept to creating a more transparent record about her own life experiences was possibly the best thing Gaga could have ever done. Each track in ‘Joanne’ has its own feel, influences and style while, on the most part, still coming to together as one to create a solid piece of work. Moreover, the record acts as a gateway for Gaga. Now that she has broken the barrier into a new genre and she is now freer than ever to produce any kind of music that she wants. If ‘Joanne’ was a trial in order for Gaga to break free from the shackles of mainstream pop music, then she has definitely liberated herself with this incredible collection of songs. This album will get you singing, dancing and crying, and is, without a doubt, Gaga’s best pop venture to date.