There’s no denying the pop legacy that the Manhattan born powerhouse, Lady Gaga, has already made.
From her synth-pop starting point, The Fame, to the questionable electro-pop crazed experience that was ARTPOP, it’s clear that Gaga will try anything to keep fans and peers on their toes. What next for Gaga? She’s given us over the top performances and delivered the pop career that many musicians would dream of reaching. The answer lies on her fifth studio album, Joanne, which is less pop bangers and more of a reinvention of herself as a country crooner.
From the opening track it is apparent straight away that this album is not another pop offering from the vocal dynamo. Executively produced by Mark Ronson, you’d expect his characteristic electro-groove guitar offerings. They are present on the lead single, Perfect Illusion, but he’s moved more towards a country feel, which is present on Diamond Heart. This track boasts a Nebraskan flavoured country rock vibe, with Gaga intoning a patriotic love story, proclaiming “C’mon baby, do you have a girlfriend, rain on me a million // I’m not flawless, but I’ve got a diamond heart”.
Most of the tracks on this album are produced by Bloodpop, Mark Ronson and Gaga herself and in quite a contrast to the album opener, A-YO sees them take on this whole western throwdown vibe. “Get up, fallin’ / My body’s got you breathin’” she croons over this country hip-hop blended crowd pleaser. Following this is the title track itself, Joanne, which sees Gaga pay homage to her auntie who died at just 19 years old. “Take my hand, stay Joanne // Heaven’s not ready for you,” is what opens this touching tribute to a woman Gaga didn’t get to meet. The raw stripped back guitar strums blend perfectly with her quite exposed voice. The beauty behind this track really is the overall finished product sounding quite unfinished. It’s raw and really captures the longing Gaga feels towards one of her biggest inspirations.
Ending on quite an emotional note, the change in pace is very apparent in the preceding track. John Wayne narrates the desire of an exhilarating relationship with a guy who shares the characteristics of the True Grit actor. Even though the song feels like a constant build up, there’s still a drive of imperturbable energy with distorted guitars, a repetitive snare and the grit and temperamental delivery of Gaga’s vocal.
Dancin’ In Circles is a track that came to light when Ronson and Gaga hung out with the multi-instrumentalist mastermind Beck in his studio. Everything about this track just oozes that signature peculiar Beck sound. Gaga delivers a studied pop-vocal rap over a laidback guitar groove and leaves a reggae-inflected finish.
Sinner’s Prayer is the collaboration between Gaga and Father John Misty, who delivers an infectious bassline while Gaga pleads to her man “I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man but you, but you”. Gaga’s crisp vocals on this track are a mix of that signature Stevie Nicks and the old school vocal of Gaga that was present on The Fame. Come To Mama is one of the joyful standouts on the album, with the intentions of a Southern soul finish, it comes across more like a dated Christmas jingle. Whether this was an intentional move by classical mastermind Emile Haynie or not, what can be said is the feel-good distorted guitars and consistent drum loop give a sense of joy and happiness to anyone listening. At first it’s a weird juxtaposed blend of emotive lyrical delivery and joyous production, but it grows on you in a way that shows there’s joy if you work through the struggles of a relationship.
Lady Gaga has always been a firm believer that female musicians should be supportive of one another and not bring each other down. A message that is beautifully portrayed in the album cut, Hey Girl, with Florence Welsh, a steady R&B-esque production similar to Miguel’s Do You…. The album closer, Angel Down, is a touching tribute to Trayvon Martin who was murdered in a hate crime back in 2012. Gaga pleads “I’m a believer, it’s chaos // Where are our leaders? Oh, oh oh” over dreamy psychedelic production and angelic backward loops.
Overall, it’s clear that Joanne is lacking Gaga’s signature catchy pop hooks. However, this album is more sonically consistent and has a clear theme of honesty and the stripped-back production allows her to hang up those crazy outfits and give the best theatrical performance of her career. The rock-tinged country vibes throughout and the honest stories are well thought out. Gaga might have never met her aunt Joanne, but the aim was to give her a legacy that she rightfully deserved and she’s achieved exactly that.