This review originally appeared in The Penmen Press on November 9, 2016
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 8 years since Lady Gaga burst on to the scene, taking the media by storm with her eccentric persona and dancefloor-ready synth-pop. Her latest recording, Joanne, sees the singer taking a more grounded, straightforward approach. Leading up to the release of the album, Gaga dropped a pair of killer singles that really got my attention.
“Perfect Illusion,” the lead single, is a huge gasoline fire of a track. It feels very 80’s with its disco-inspired beat, psychedelic synths, and big rock n’ roll style vocal. A theme already begins to present here, as the lyrics also often leave a lot to be desired. “Perfect Illusion’s” weakest link is its lyrics, where Gaga feels like she’s run out of things to say by the bridge.
I could not have predicted Gaga’s next single. The track “Million Reasons” is a sweet and country-tinged acoustic ballad. Her range as a singer is a showcase here as she glides effortlessly from subdued and somber to big and passionate. This song feels like the next logical step after the maturity she showed in her 2014 collaboration with Tony Bennet.
When Gaga steps outside of her comfort zone (a funny concept when you remember her meat dress) is when the album truly impresses me. Take a track like “Sinner’s Prayer," in which she tackles country from another direction. It’s gritty and cool, like a drive through the desert. The track is densely layered with live instrumentation, including some great guitar licks and accents. The track features Father John Misty, a folk singer and but one of many friends Gaga brought on to help with this album. Misty is hot off of his collaboration on Beyoncé’s Lemonade (“Hold Up”). Gaga also gets help from the likes of Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Beck, and Mark Ronson of “Uptown Funk” fame.
Probably the most significant collaboration is on the track “Hey Girl”, with Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. The slow jam feels like an ode to Prince. The vocal trade off feels like each of the women is coaxing the most out of the other. This is appropriate as the lyrics talk about how girls have to be there for each other.
With how much genre hopping Gaga is doing here it can be hard to feel like she’s truly committed to a given sound. Take a track like “Dancin’ in Circles,” where the kinda-reggae, kinda-No Doubt sound feels more like an accessory to her normal outfit than true experimentation.
Lady Gaga’s latest feels like the beginning of a new era for her. More often than not, her experiments turn out successful. When they don’t, they feel more like growing pains than failures. This is the most exciting Gaga’s been in years.