Lady Gaga has always been something of a chameleon, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when rumours of a country album began to circulate earlier this year. She’s dabbled in country before with the brilliant ‘You & I’ – but one track on a genre-hopping album does not a country star make…
Exploring the sounds of the central United States seems to hold a special allure for artists who want to step out of their musical comfort zone and reach for credibility. Madonna enjoyed great success fusing electronica with country on her 2000 album Music. David Bowie made a similar jaunt through the Bluesy southern states on his 1975 effort Young Americans. Both artists have undoubtedly influenced Lady Gaga in both her previous incarnation, and may have even been part of her decision to take this direction.
The first bar of album opener ‘Diamond Heart,’ with it’s soft electric piano chords, is misleading; as soon as the beat kicks in, supported by a rising synth lead, we’re in standard Gaga electro-pop stomping territory. ‘A-Yo’ – a bass-heavy, bombastic track with dirty, raw electric guitar riffs – continues the uptempo pace as Gaga belts about getting the crowd revved up with her new sound.
Title track ‘Joanne’ with it’s steel string acoustic guitar refrain and sweeping string part is beautifully simple, and wouldn’t have been out-of-place alongside the Gustavo Santaolalla compositions on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. Gaga’s raw vocal delivery channels Stevie Nicks in the best way. Sadly, judging by the response to the album so far, it will be dismissed as boring and forgotten.
‘John Wayne,’ sees Gaga imitating herself, creating a country-pop reworking of ‘Teeth’ on which she screams about how much she loves cowboys. The chorus of ’Dancin’ In Circles’ screams Gwen Stefani, from the vocal delivery to the reggae-lite beat. Not a country track in any way, shape or form it jars for me as the album plays out.
It’s clear why ’Perfect Illusion’ was chosen as the first single – it’s the only true dance floor filler on the album. Plonked in an odd place, in the centre of the record, it’s followed by ‘Million Reasons’ – an unjustly maligned ballad – which resets the tone as Joanne continues its exploration of middle-America.
‘Sinner’s Prayer’ with it’s driving acoustic guitar, brilliant bass hook and warped harmonica part is fantastic. Gaga sounds really comfortable singing in her lower register in the earlier part of the track, and though it lacks the catchiness, it’s pretty reminiscent of the iconic Cher hit, ‘Gypsies Tramps & Thieves’.
‘Come To Mama’ has single potential – a quality pretty lacking from most tracks on Joanne – because it’s so unlike anything out there right now. The simplicity of the melody works in its favour as it’s a pretty random track that really reminded me of Home Alone 2. Something about it – probably the saxophone part – calls to mind Darlene Love’s ‘All Alone At Christmas’. Add in some bells and Gaga’s got herself a Christmas number-one.
Florence Welch and Lady Gaga seemed like a pairing that could potentially do serious damage to the ears. But ‘Hey Girl’ is surprisingly restrained. It’s essentially a semi-modern reworking of Elton John’s ‘Bennie & The Jets’ – a synth-led funk track that would fit right in on a Prince album but seems shoehorned onto Joanne.
Gaga does her best Lana Del Ray impression on ’Angel Down’. It’s not the worst track on the album, but it does seem a little regressive of someone who once seemed so desperate to be a trailblazer. Pretty dark, and bordering on biblical, it discusses the breakdown of society. Perhaps she should have licensed it to Trump as his campaign song?
‘Grigio Girls’ is great fun. The Spice Girls get a lyrical shout out, so it’s obviously the best thing Gaga has ever recorded. The moment the track drops out and she goes a Capella with a bunch of her drunken mates, karaoke style, is a really sweet moment.
It seems that most people have written this era off before it has begun in earnest, which is a real shame as there’s quite a lot to enjoy on Joanne – even if Gaga doesn’t intend for you to enjoy it on the dance floor. There’s no doubting the production quality of the music, and the musicianship on display. Gaga has selected only the best to craft the sound she desired for her fourth album.
The thing that’s clear to me is, Lady “Call Me Joanne” Gaga is creating the same form of art she always has, just using a different set of tools. Where as on previous albums, she’s grabbed the listener from the outset and dragged them along for the ride of their life; on Joanne she seems to have learned the art of restraint. The problem being that restraint isn’t something people expect, or want, from her.
The outlandish costumes that made Gaga a household name are gone, but the real question is whether we’re now seeing the real person, or just another incarnation in the continued reinvention on a pop star attempting to stay relevant. Either way, the album is destined to underperform. But I’d wager that in years to come, people will look back at Joanne and wonder why they didn’t appreciate it at the time.
Joanne is available to pre-order on iTunes.