The authenticity of Lady Gaga has been called into question since she first broke out as one of the biggest pop stars of the last decade. She’s spent the last few years answering that with a Grammy winning jazz album with legend Tony Bennett, a highly-praised performance of The Sound of Music at the Oscars, an acting gig on American Horror Story, and a much more toned down image since her days as Outrageous Fashionista.
On her new album Joanne, Gaga weaves country and folk into an unusual blend that is miles from the synth-layered electropop that comprised her last three non-jazz records. In her pursuit of genres known for authenticity, she’s worked with some of the biggest names in indie, alternative and country to help ensure she’s on the right track, including Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age), Beck, go-to country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, Father John Misty and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, among others.
With Mark Ronson producing, Gaga steps into the heartland with the southern rock-inspired Diamond Heart before the ho-down of A-Yo and goes lo-fi on the folky Joanne – and that’s just the first three tracks.
While country influences a majority of the record, Gaga shifts across the spectrum throughout with the theatrically hokey Come To Mama and 70s pop girls-should-stick-together anthem Hey Girl with Florence Welch, before closing with the haunting piano ballad Angel Down – a track she wrote with longtime collaborator RedOne inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin.
Where ARTPOP felt like a regression from Born This Way, Joanne serves as the more comfortable followup. The high points don’t reach the heights of her previous albums, but they never sink as low either. Even the most glaring of those lows, Perfect Illusion, could have been avoided – or at least put in the proper context. At just 3 minutes, it was a minute too long, the vocal mix overpowered, and the production could have been beefed up. As the first single, it was a misstep, but as part of the album, the pulled-back production makes sense.
The record could have been polished to perfection, layered with backing support vocals, and filled to the brim with sound, but they’re not – and it’s clearly intentional. At times, it’s only Gaga and a guitar or piano. The title track is a stripped-down emotional ode to her aunt, who died before Gaga was born, while Million Reasons is a country ballad with guitar, piano and Hillary Lindsay singing backup. Both are album highlights with surprisingly strong melodies despite their limited instrumentation.
Elsewhere, Gaga has fun with upbeat numbers like A-Yo and John Wayne, but she sounds more in her element on the bombastic Come To Mama and the Beatles-esque jazzy bonus track Just Another Day (yes, spring for the deluxe edition!). Tracks that let her theatre vocals shine and help further show off her versatility as a recording artist and performer, where Just Another Day plays like a live lounge performance.
Joanne is an album with faults – as if on purpose – quite the reverse from the strict precision of her records before. That detail is the most surprising element of the record, even more than the genre-shift and flop first single. Anyone familiar with Gaga’s abilities could have foreseen her move toward singer/songwriter and southern rock – genres that allow her to place her vocals front and centre on record.
Unlike her albums before, on Joanne she’s letting the music do most of the work. Will it finally dismiss the naysayers? Not likely. But in an era where safety is the name of the game, at the very least she deserves credit for deviating from the expected and still pulling it off.
1. Diamond Heart
4. John Wayne
5. Dancin’ In Circles
6. Perfect Illusion
7. Million Reasons
8. Sinner’s Prayer
9. Come To Mama
10. Hey Girl [featuring Florence Welch]
11. Angel Down
12. Grigio Girls
13. Just Another Day
14. Angel Down (Work Tape)