Lady Gaga trades in her disco stick for a country hat on ‘Joanne’

Interscope Records/Courtesy
Lady Gaga Joanne | Interscope Records
Grade: B

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Truly, Lady Gaga making an album like Joanne was inevitable, but not for the reason you think. The popular consensus seems to be that Joanne, named after her late aunt, is Lady Gaga’s “personal” album, giving a candid glimpse into Gaga’s relationship with her family and her struggle to make it in the Big City.

Indeed, musically, it trades the overt disco and synthpop influences that Gaga treasured in favor of the country and rock her parents enjoyed. But Gaga’s soul is pure camp, and those all-American genres are distorted in the funhouse mirror of Joanne. Her artificial Southern twang on the country songs and her bizarrely operatic delivery on the rock songs imply that Lady Gaga isn’t really done being a character yet; she’s just taken on a new incarnation.

But if that’s what she’s going for, the results are spotty. Take, for example, the two big rock-influenced tracks on the album, “Perfect Illusion” and “Diamond Heart,” where Gaga channels the rocker persona. The former, Joanne’s lead single, tries to upstage “Bad Romance” in the epic chorus game, with Gaga belting out the refrain with all her heart. Unfortunately, its cluttered production fails to create the necessary buildup, so when Gaga lets her voice loose on the chorus, it doesn’t deliver the soaring high it needs to carry the song. The latter, the first song on the album, is more successful, probably because it hews more closely to the pop-rock song template.

The rock girl might be Gaga’s weakest affectation on the album; the persona lacks the sense of humor to convincingly carry flamboyant lines like “One, five, ten, lay a million on me / Before the end of this song.”

The big flaw running through both songs, as well as the forgettable ballad “Million Reasons,” is Gaga’s vocal performance. Technically, Gaga hits every note and then some. But the unchanging fervor she sings each line with flattens any dramatic content the lyrics might contain, from lousy lovers (“Perfect Illusion”) to her past as a go-go dancer (“Diamond Heart”).

Occasionally, this works to her advantage. In the album closer “Angel Down” and the title track, this zeal scans as sweetly earnest. Both songs deal with the deaths of Trayvon Martin and her aunt, respectively. In both songs, Gaga takes on a faux-naif persona carried on the back of the delicate production. She sees the world from a hyper-innocent vantage point, which cannily increases the emotional power of each ballad. For example, in the title track, Gaga begs her dying aunt to “stay” because she needs her here on earth. The emotional impact from the song derives from the naivety of Gaga’s impossible wish.

Gaga also plays up her country roots — her mother is from West Virginia — in two of the album’s best songs. In “John Wayne,” the actor is resurrected as a larger-than-life, mustang-driving, alcoholic, blue collar bad boy. The song starts strong with a deliciously ridiculous, short, spoken section, and is buoyed through the rest by the increasingly funny accumulation of country clichés. Similarly, the song “Sinner’s Prayer” emerges as a caricature of Christian country pop. The stereotypical production, featuring twanging guitars and a folksy harmonica, undermines the heavy Biblical references in the lyrics.

Unsurprisingly, the two collaborations emerge as outliers on the album. The Beck collaboration “Dancin’ in Circles” retreads the masturbation theme from “So Happy I Could Die” with a catchy reggae-influenced beat, which sounds anachronistic in such a retro-filled album. In contrast, the 80’s funk-channeling Florence Welch duet “Hey Girl” features both vocalists making unvarnished proclamations of feminist solidarity together, which is touching in its simplicity and directness.

Taken as a whole, Joanne feels like a transitional album. While it contains some bold shots in the dark, too much of the album misses its mark. At least Joanne indicates that while Gaga tries to be many things musically, there’s one thing she’ll never be: predictable.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal [email protected].