In interviews, Lady Gaga frequently cites the steady diet of musical theater and classic rock she was raised on during her formative years in Lower Manhattan. The artist formerly known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta famously took her stage name from a Queen song. Yet, the dance bangers on her first album, The Fame, which catapulted her to titular stardom, hardly suggested an affinity for Sondheim or Springsteen. On her second LP, Born This Way, Gaga tried to reconcile the club with theatricality and rawk sleaze. And she came tantalizingly close to reaching that goal on “Marry the Night”, “The Edge of Glory”, and “Yoü and I”. But when Artpop, a loopy avant-pop experiment (largely viewed as a disaster), followed a few years later, only a couple of tracks (“Dope” and “Gypsy”) advanced Born This Way’s aim. I remain a staunch advocate of Artpop, even if it’s now clear the album distracted Lady Gaga from her halting embrace of creative first principles.
Joanne is, at long last, the record you’d expect from an immensely talented theater dork with a penchant for rock music. Undoubtedly Lady Gaga’s most impressive work, it arrives after a canny rehabilitation campaign during which she abandoned media stunts (so long, edible eveningwear!) and instead put her vocal gifts on display. Her history of shenanigans explains the shock that followed a stunning Sound of Music performance at the Oscars in 2015. No one, including Julie Andrews, should’ve been surprised by Gaga’s pipes.
Her taste as an artist is another matter entirely, which rightly gets called into question over and over again. Joanne is unlikely to sway critics and fans for whom the well has long been poisoned. Proudly uncool, the album at times hews closer to the tradition of Heart or Elton John than modern pop sensibilities. For me, this exploration (and elevation) of what some might call schlock is a feature rather than a flaw. Joanne hopscotches across oft-dismissed styles – bombastic pop-rock (“Diamond Heart” and “Perfect Illusion”), heartfelt twang (“Million Reasons” and “Sinner’s Prayer”), showstopping Broadway (“Come to Mama”), cheesy 70s duetting (“Hey Girl”) – with reverence and glee. Do these 11 tracks cohere into an airtight whole? Nope. In fact, the record’s breathless 39-minute runtime can result in genre whiplash.
But Joanne finds Lady Gaga, the artist, at her most genuine and comfortable in her skin. Warmth radiates from her stark lyrics and the album’s expert production (courtesy of Mark Ronson and BloodPop). Melodies burst from these indelible tunes, crafted by Gaga and her motley gang of co-songwriters (which includes Ronson, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Beck, and Father John Misty). Vocals soar from a singer who, no longer interested in self-imposed chilliness, has unloosed her battering ram of an instrument.
When evaluating a new work by a famous artist or band, I often imagine how it would sound from behind a veil of ignorance, without the taint of prejudice and, maybe, with some degree of generosity. If this were the debut album from a promising rock band, with Stefani Germanotta as its fabulous lead singer, I suspect Joanne would be hailed for its audacity. It goes from punchy (“Diamond Heart” and “A-YO”) to lovely (“Joanne”) and back again at a breathless clip. The album reaches full thump on its middle dance-rock trifecta (“John Wayne”, “Dancin’ in Circles”, and “Perfect Illusion”) before careening into softer, and odder, directions. “Million Reasons” is a gorgeous country-western ballad, which gives way to the bouncy two-step of “Sinner’s Prayer”. Jazz hands lift the euphoric “Come to Mama”. Florence Welch shimmies into the easy sisterhood throwback “Hey Girl”. Joanne concludes with the devastating, if inscrutable, “Angel Down”.
Back to reality, and full context, Joanne still represents a striking course correction for Lady Gaga. By abandoning the dance club for the dive bar, she may have tossed aside her status as a pop star once and for all. But Gaga has emerged as something better and truer. Stefani Germanotta is a theatrical rock goddess. And, baby, she was born that way. B PLUS