Lady Gaga’s Joanne is the artist’s first studio album in three years (not counting her collaboration with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek). As an avid listener and die-hard fan since I first heard “Just Dance” back in 2008, I was eager to hear this album since, well, 2013 after the release of Artpop. Not that I didn’t like Artpop–it’s full of great sleazy pop music but it wasn’t what I had become accustomed to after listening to The Fame Monster and her greatest piece of work so far Born This Way. BTW is the epitome of what I think of as Lady Gaga’s “sound.” It’s dark-trashy-synth-gothic-metal pop and it’s perfect.
Keeping on track with the newest release Joanne, I was kind of hesitant. I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to get another Born This Way (at least not this time–Gaga has said working on American Horror Story has made her rediscover her love of the art of darkness so fingers crossed).
It became evident Gaga was going toward a more folk-rock vibe this time around when announcements of collaborations with Florence Welch and Father John Misty were made, and I was alright with that. She also had the help of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Mark Ronson, so I started to worry about it less because at least it would be in capable hands.
When I first listened to the album all the way through, I was not impressed; that is, until I heard the track, “Dancin’ in Circles.” This song is so sonically different from the rest, opting for a more reggae vibe that is reminiscent of a No Doubt track. Her voice seems to be channeling Gwen Stefani with a more high-pitched coo reciting the lyrics. Upon second listen, I was able to appreciate the other tracks after I identified “Dancin’ in Circles” as the standout track. I wonder why her team didn’t choose it as one of the promotional singles but that’s for another time.
Another crowd-pleaser appears to be “Diamond Heart,” the opening track. It sounds kind of like a Bruce Springsteen song. “Young, wild, American / looking to be something,” she starts off singing in a pretty low register, keeping pace with the drums which are the only backing sound at this point, but her voice quickly becomes more jazzy as she raises her voice matching the guitar that comes in. “A-YO” is more obviously country-inspired, but I don’t hate it. In fact, I really like this song. The two things that can always salvage a Lady Gaga song are her lyrics and her voice. I find the lyrics to this song particularly charming and her voice is impressive on this track. She has such an impressive range–she’s able to go from a soft whisper to her distinctive, loud theater-trained voice. My one qualm with this song is the title/use of the title. I don’t feel like the phrase “a-yo” is very authentic to Gaga’s persona, but that’s just me.
In regards to the album’s lead single (and lovechild of Kevin Parker and Mark Ronson), “Perfect Illusion,” there were some mixed reviews. When I heard it for the first time I really dug the production and instrumentals of it. It seemed more in line with the sonic world of BTW, and I found most of the lyrics pretty damn good; however one particular couplet of lyrics bothers me so much: “I don’t need eyes to see / I felt you touchin’ me / High like amphetamine / Maybe you’re just a dream.” This is the woman who wrote “Bad Romance,” come on. Aside from that intro-to-songwriting collection of words, I think the song is a great piece of work and influence from Kevin Parker is very evident towards the end of the songs as things begin to build up similarly to “Let It Happen.”
Tracks “Joanne,” “John Wayne,” and “Million Reasons” are the more folky songs on the album and they all hold up. She demonstrates great songwriting skills on all of them and her voice is as angelic as ever–especially in “Million Reasons.”
“Sinner’s Prayer” is fantastic track. The song takes the listener on a journey through a fictional southern family’s personal drama like an episode of Dallas. There are cinematic transitions throughout the track, adding to the dramatic over-the-top world created. It’s a great song. “Come to Mama,” “Hey Girl,” and “Angel Down” are more mellow tracks after the theatricality of “Perfect Illusion” and “Sinner’s Prayer.” “Hey Girl” features Florence Welch and it’s a groovy, synth, Prince-sounding tune about female friendship. You can pretty much picture Welch and Gaga on a stage holding glasses of wine, wandering around and pointing at each other periodically. This song sounds more like a Kevin Parker song than “Perfect Illusion.” That’s a very good thing. The highlight of the song is during the slow down when the two women sing together softly, “Help me hold my hair back / Walk me home ’cause I can’t find a cab / And we dance down the Bowery / Held hands like we were 17 again / And then it’s 4 a.m. / The sun is creepin’ up again / Don’t you leave me / Oh, darling don’t you leave me.” This song is so lovely with its subject matter. There needs to be more songs about the beauty of female friendships as opposed to heteronormative love.
Another standout track from Joanne is “Grigio Girls.” This song has such a good melody and her voice is as light as air. Another song about comradery among women, she details the story of her and other girls crying and bonding over bottles of pinot grigio–something to which a lot of us can relate. The chorus is so catchy and the lyrics are beautiful, especially with Gaga using her full voice to belt it out. “All the Pinot / Pinot Grigio girls / Pour your heart out / Watch your blues turn gold / All the Pinot / Pinot Grigio girls / Keep it real cold / ‘Cause it’s a fired-up world.”
All in all, it’s no Born This Way, but I think for the direction Gaga wanted to go with for this album, it’s well executed and well produced. Gaga’s songwriting is emotional and raw, and her voice is so impressive–taking each song above and beyond. I think she had to get an album like this out of her system, and its pretty darn good. Do yourself a favor and listen to “Dancin’ In Circles” if you haven’t already.