Lady Gaga is a weird gal, or at least weird in the terms of modern pop music. Yes, her looks are as iconic as they are strange. Her performances are equally complex and ridiculous, bouncing between avant garde and a Joel Schumacher production. But her music may be the oddest thing about Gaga, mainly for how it tries to go against modern pop radio. When she had electro pop hits like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” Gaga thrusted into the European gothic house music of “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro.” When that was established, she then jumped back to 80s arena rock with “You and I” and “The Edge of Glory.” And right when she went back to electro pop funk with “Do What U Want,” she goes and makes a record with Tony Freakin’ Bennett. Now, three years removed from her last solo outing (the musically fun but lyrically underwhelming ARTPOP) Mother Monster is back and she’s made her boldest move yet….she made a country rock record.
Well, it’s a Lady Gaga country rock record. Which means it’s the biggest, shiniest, loudest country record that only Lady Gaga could make. Joanne sounds like if New Order produced an album by Heart if Cher was on lead vocals. This time around, Gaga recruits Mark Ronson (pop’s resident throwback king) and BloodPop (Justin Bieber, Madonna) to craft a “stripped-down” record with rollicking guitars, swinging hips, and Gaga’s titanic vocals. Seriously, if you didn’t know Gaga could sing her ass off, Joanne will remind you head on. “Perfect Illusion,” “Million Reasons,” “Diamond Heart,” “Hey Girl,” and the title track feature Gaga belting her heart out. It’s not exactly over-singing per say, as Gaga knows just how to build up each song to its chorus (see “Perfect Illusion” and album opener “Diamond Heart”).
But Joanne‘s other outstanding feature is that hint of southern twang and bar band rock sound. “Diamond Heart” sounds like a lost Journey cut with it’s pumping drums and screeching (if not partially muted) guitars probably provided by co-writer Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. Mr. Homme is also on “John Wayne,” where Gaga begs for a hot wild cowboy while a faded vocal sample plays over the chorus like a slide guitar with another stomping drum beat. “Come to Mama” sounds like a cut from Arctic Monkeys’ AM with it being a tortured love song with horns, fuzzy guitar, and plopping drums.
The highlights are when Gaga turns down the stage lights and keeps thing as minimal as she can. The title track features slight guitar picks and Gaga’s haunting vocal delivery capturing Stevie Nicks. “Sinner’s Prayer” is a slow burning bar jam that sounds Salma Hayek should be dancing to it in From Dusk Till Dawn.
“Million Reasons” is Gaga’s prime solo spot allowing her powerful pipes to truly shine at the front of the track and with some well-recorded background vocals. There’s real hurt in her voice but she turns it into something powerful, as she does on closing ballad “Angel Down.”
But if you’re looking for swoon-worthy vocals, there’s a reason Gaga brought in Florence Welch on this project. “Hey Girl,” a duet with the Florence + the Machine frontwoman is sexy as hell and may be the album highlight. It doubles as simple empowerment anthem and futuristic R&B slow jam with its slight organs and harp picking. Welch and Gaga are a wonderful singing duo, matching each other’s high range through verses but also showing delicacy in the bridge.
All of this musical and vocal bliss feels so simplistic yet works so well, it’s only when Gaga tries to pander to pop radio is when Joanne stops dead in its tracks. “A-YO” is so pedestrian and pathetic, it’s a wonder how it made the cut. It sounds like an early demo of Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin” with its hand-clap drums and and whirring guitars.
“Dancin’ in the Rain” tries to ape Rihanna with it’s mix of tropical and latin sounds, but it just sounds confused with itself. Neither track fits in with the vibe of the record and can’t use the excuse of “trying new sounds.” Whereas say Britney Spears’ latest, Glory, which has a whole theme of trying every kind of pop under the sun for a wild circus of sound, Joanne has a clear sonic theme that runs through most of the album. Anything that distracts from that feels like something that doesn’t even work.
Joanne is the first of two middle names Stefani Germanotta was born with, and the world has probably seen the glamorous diva that the other name, Angelina, implies. Joanne‘s lyrics are the certainly the most straightforward of Gaga’s career so far, that of looking for wild love and trying to keep things together, certainly inspired by Gaga’s recent split with actor Taylor Kinney.
“Diamond Heart” is Gaga as the bad girl looking for love with a “head full of Jameson,” and “out of school, go-go’n.” Her vision of a cowboy lover on “John Wayne” reads like something out of an Eagles song (“3 am, mustang speeding’/Two lovers, headed for a dead end/Too fast, hold tight, he laughs/Runnin’ through the red lights/Hollerin’ over, rubber spinning’/Big swig, toss another beer can/Too lit, tonight, praying’/On the moonlight”). Gaga gets real about modern love on “Perfect Illusion,” as she accepts her fantasies may never come true (“That’s what it means to crush/Now that I’m wakin’ up/I still feel the blow/But at least now I know/It wasn’t love”).
But like with the music, the best moments are the slow ones where Gaga lets her voice do the all the heavy lifting. It turns out, Joanne was the name of Gaga’a aunt, a painter and poet who died of lupus in 1974. The song “Joanne” is a heartbreaking farewell to someone who Gaga clearly admired (“I promised I/Wouldn’t say goodbye/So I grin/And my voice gets thin”). “Million Reasons” is a near-breakup song where Gaga begs her man to give just one reason for her to stick around after so many missteps (“And if you say something that you might even mean/It’s hard to even fathom which parts I should believe”). “Angel Down” is the expected Gaga commentary track on where the world is today, with “shots were fired on the street,” “has our young courage faded?” “where are our leaders?” etc.
But the ace of Joanne is Gaga herself, free from her self-imposed demands of being ahead of the artistic times and competing with her pop competitors. Gaga hasn’t sounded this alive and believable since Born This Way, and Joanne has much more of a personality than that record.
It’s refreshing to see the walking media circus of Gaga stripped down (or at least as stripped as she’ll allow) to her basic musical influences and have a pop album where the singer is actually the most important thing about it. If doing musical 180s is what Gaga needs to stay interesting, then I say her next record should be a double-disc acid jazz album. Hell, get Kendrick Lamar to have Thundercat and Kamasi Washington come in to play.