Lady Gaga’s stylistic turn in Joanne is singer’s best work in years
Music historians describe Baroque as extravagant, grandiose and over the top. There is a very particular persona in the show business who embodies all of those qualities more profoundly than anyone else. Lady Gaga has been the definition of shocking, with both her image and music aiming to excite and provoke her audiences—until now. Lady Gaga has released her fourth solo studio album Joanne on Oct. 21. Not counting her jazz collaboration with Tony Bennett in Cheek to Cheek, Joanne is Lady Gaga’s first album in three years since Artpop, and the difference is striking. Following her heavily overproduced attempt at a pseudo-artistic statement, Joanne aims for simplistic authenticity.
Lady Gaga creates a well-focused album that uses country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll themes to dig into herself and discover who she really is. This is not Lady Gaga’s first attempt to create music that is personal and representative of herself. However, prior to this album, those attempts sounded forced. Her humble lyrics about loving and accepting oneself combined with disco and poppy rhythms seemed dramatic. Joanne is different. It is named after Lady Gaga’s late aunt who the singer considers her guardian angel and biggest inspiration. Listening to the gorgeously simple and pure title cut, it feels as if Lady Gaga’s own heartbeat is a part of the track. Lady Gaga sings, “Every part of my aching heart/ Needs you more than the angels do.”
The singer’s love for her, the person who inspired her most, is almost palpable. Stylistically, this is a pivotal point in Lady Gaga’s career. The listener realizes that with the opening track, “Diamond Heart,” which sets the tone for the whole album. A David Bowie-inspired unapologetic rock confession about being heartbroken, Lady Gaga sings, “I might not be flawless but at least I got a diamond heart.” Her voice in the song sounds as mature it has ever sounded. Gaga has finally mastered her talents and is now using them to their full potential. Throughout the whole album, her vocals are left unedited, which gives them an incredibly raw quality, adding to the album’s authenticity.
In “Million Reasons,” a powerful ballad about her unsteady relationship with actor Taylor Kinney, Lady Gaga uncovers all her pain in the most touching way. “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away/ But baby I just need one good one to stay,” she sings. The biggest surprise of the album is a duet in “Hey Girl,” with Florence Welch, the vocalist of indie rock band Florence and the Machine. An epitome of female empowerment that sounds more convincing than her “Telephone” duet with Beyonce, Welch and Lady Gaga’s thrilling contraltos deliver their message with moving dignity and effortless sincerity.
It is as if their voices were made for each other, leaving listeners to wonder why the two have never worked together before. Despite not being a pop album, Joanne gives the impression that this is the music that Lady Gaga is most comfortable creating. A folk driven “Sinner’s Pray,” the country infused tracks “A-YO” and “Grigio Girls” and the rock ‘n’ roll sounding “Just Another Day” and “John Wayne” all provide a deeper look into Lady Gaga’s musical background. Nonetheless, they do not add any versatility to the album. Most tracks suffer from a lack of a distinct tune. With a couple of awkward downbeats and unoriginal rhythms, Joanne sounds rushed and limited. A Beck-written bridge in “Dancing in Circles” is an exception, as it is contagiously catchy.
The most distinct song on the album is the lead single titled “Perfect Illusion,” a pulsing dance break-up anthem about the dangers of love expectations. But even this song falls short of living up to Lady Gaga’s iconic tracks, including “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance.” The most touching piece of the album is the ballad “Angel Down,” which was dedicated to Trayvon Martin. The lyrics are harshly critical of our society and leadership, but there is a light of optimism and hope. Lady Gaga sings, “I’m a believer it’s a trial/Mother Monster believes that it is our societal responsibility to overcome this crisis.”
The singer’s performance is almost a cappella. In the deluxe version of the album, there is a work tape of “Angel Down.” Lady Gaga ends the album with nothing but her voice and her purest emotions, exposed like burned skin in the hot Florida sun. Joanne shows Lady Gaga in a role for which she was much underappreciated—a songstress. This album is not the grand performance that is supposed to make an artistic statement. Neither is it an attempt to experiment and stray away from the sickening pop that should have been left in the 2000s.
It has been eight years since Stephani Germanotta rose to cultural prominence and became one of the biggest stars the world has ever seen. As she transitions her style into a classicism-era, although far from a perfect attempt, Lady Gaga shows that she is not done just yet and that she will evolve as an artist for as long as there are genres to explore and music to write.