Photo from ladygaga.com
BY PARKER KLYN
We lost David Bowie this year. The seminal artist started, popularized and epitomized the glam aesthetic that has maintained its presence even in hyper-modern society.
One of his biggest selling points was his complete lack of care for anyone’s opinion of him. His true influence came in affirmations that being a weirdo can be really cool.
The closest modern Bowie comparison is Lady Gaga, a pop star who has genuinely earned both the “pop” and “star” components of that term. Since her breakthrough album, The Fame Monster, Gaga has brought earnestness and true maximalism to mainstream pop.
For every power-pop anthem like “Edge of Glory” and “Telephone,” she gives us a stunning ballad like “You and I.” These songs were off-kilter and strange, as if Gaga had gone to a pop music workshop without having ever heard a pop song before–and they helped turn her into one of the definitive artists of the 2010’s.
Even though 2013’s Artpop was a misstep, there were signs that Gaga could continue to make some killer tracks, like the Italian house banger “Do What U Want.” Still, that album was far too commercial to make a lasting impact–it simply wasn’t weird.
So aside from the detour of a collaborative effort with Tony Bennett, Joanne is Gaga’s first album in over three years, and this time, she’s ditched her synth leads and drum machines and picked up an acoustic guitar. Joanne is just as much country and rock as it is pop, and the results are mixed.
The lead single, “Perfect Illusion,” was somewhat of a disappointment. Despite a great vocal performance, the track didn’t really earn its key change or lyrical content. It was a strange move to make this track the lead single, as it’s not very indicative at all of the music on Joanne.
Thankfully, the album picks up steam with the heart-wrenchingly beautiful “Million Reasons,” a classic piano ballad.
The chords and backing vocals evoke country greats Patsy Cline and Trisha Yearwood, and the chorus (“I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away / But baby, I just need one good one to stay”) is intensely relatable. It’s one of the best ballads of 2016.
I had great expectations for this album was Gaga’s list of collaborators, including Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, and the incredible Father John Misty. Misty’s songwriting and arrangements on “Come To Mama” are lush and blissful.
I love how the horns (including a prominent saxophone) mix with Misty’s innovative chord progressions, and Gaga’s lyrics are endearing.
Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine drops by on the girl power support-fest “Hey Girl,” which uses a flip of Elton John’s “Benny & The Jets” as its instrumental. Florence’s smooth, floaty vocals are a great contrast to Gaga’s powerful mezzo soprano. Joanne’s best songs, like the title track, are those that stick closest to standard country music.
Aside from the stomp of “John Wayne,” none of the more driving tracks make much of an impact on me. “Dancin’ In Circles” is a forced affirmation of self-love (both mental and physical); Hailee Steinfeld already expressed these feelings in a far more engaging way with last year’s “Love Myself.”
Even though I like Joanne’s slower, more measured songs, they’re not really what I expect (or want) from a Lady Gaga album.
For someone who wears a Bowie influence on her sleeve, she has a long way to go to match his experimentation.
The closest thing to a theme on Joanne is personal, emotional support, but none of it is done as deftly as, say, a Grimes or Missy Elliott album. As a result, many of these songs feel like country’s response to Katy Perry, and that’s too bad, because Lady Gaga can be so much more.