Gaga might be a lady, but she ain’t no queen of country
Joanne, the new album by one of pop’s reigning queens, has a head full of big ideas fighting with a heart full of simpler charms
Lady Gaga performs on the Dive Bar tour this month to promote her new album Joanne. Photograph Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Lady Gaga is back among us but not quite as you knew her. On the one hand, she knows what will make her further fortune, and can’t resist the glint of a blistering pop banger. But into this mix she’s thrown some craftier country numbers, making a curious mix that’s unlikely to satisfy either camp.
Album opener Diamond Heart combines the two, starting in bluesy, intimate fashion before swiftly shifting gears for more familiar EDM territory. The execution sounds more like a 1980s prog-pop band rather than the pristine product of Gaga and a bank of producers. Perfect Illusion similarly taps into the power ballad lines, with a classic “standing up from the stool” key change, and synth lines that shoot for the stars.
A-Yo spins round in sultry Bhangra style, bouncing on the upbeats on dizzy, silvery circles. Its lyrics trumpet the joys of smoking (or maybe it’s a metaphor from something more obscene that puffed over my head). If that sounds a little tame, it’s because at this stage in her career Gaga probably no longer has the capacity to shock.
She is self-aware enough to know this and has steered her career on a very particular trajectory.
Her last original record Artpop seemed like a terminus point for her grand arc of pushing pop into more arty territory – never mind that pop has already been dragged along this particular road (and with more success) by the likes of Grace Joes, Talking Heads and, more recently, Grimes.
What she does still have is a flair for the ridiculous, never more so than on Dancing in Circles. Over a hilariously confected Turkish Delight of Eurobop, she sings in her haughtiest, almost Slavic accent: “I lay around/ touch myself to pass the time” before telling us in the chorus that “In the fire I call your name out/ Up all night trying to rub the pain out”.
Better is Love Mama, with its gaily skipping vocal lines and big boozy saxophones dripping out of the speakers. It seems like a pretty direct attempt to shift the Christmas party market under the Motown mistletoe, and who could say no to that?
Back with the power pop, and we find Gaga duetting with Florence Welch on Hey Girl. Skittering synths don’t quite deliver the bombastic chorus you might have dreamed of, and given the personnel involved it feels light on artillery.
The more surprising parts of this album are the more rootsy, country numbers, some more successful than others. There is the forgettable John Wayne and later Sinners Prayer, when the smooth country beats and husky vocals are derailed by the pastiche-heavy production – this side of the Bonanza soundtrack, no one needs a run of cowboy “Hey!” calls in their songs. And while A Million Reasons is a perfectly serviceable ballad, with a decent amount of heart and soul, its message is worrying. “You’re giving me a million reasons to walk away,” she sings, “but I just need one good one to stay.”
When she does strip it back, though, Gaga mines a rich, fresh seam. The title track comes from Gaga’s aunt, who died at the age of 19 from lupus. A gorgeous guitar ballad, it strips off the plastic pop armour and reveals a much tougher, rawer side.
If Ryan Adams was considering covering this album in the same manner as his Taylor Swift tribute, he’ll find Gaga has beaten him to it. Album closer Angel Down, meanwhile, finds her in oddly elegiac, vulnerable form.
Had Lady Gaga committed to this sound for a whole album, rather than trying to mix the rough with the smooth, the results could have been quietly spectacular.
She might be a lady, but she ain’t no queen of country.