Lady Gaga has returned to the pop world, and delivered an album that for listeners is, in every possible way, disarming. Pulling influences from every possible direction, the woman who has made a name for herself by being the most delightfully unpredictable artist in the industry released an album that does something not many artists have been willing to do: fill a record with material that is music made for them, not for the commercial success. She’s won Grammys and almost every other kind of award out there, been the only person to have performed at the Oscars, Super Bowl, and the Grammy’s in the same year, and a bunch more accolades that make your head spin. She doesn’t need to keep putting out songs with a catchy beat and lyrics that sound ripped from a children’s book. She made music that she feels passionate about, and with quite an impressive roster of artists I might add. This record boasts collaborations with Mark Ronson, Josh Homme from Queens of The Stone Age, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Father John Misty, Beck, and Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, all of whom bring their own touches to the tracks that make this record the eclectic mix that it is.
If you’re not like me, and haven’t listened to the record yet (I’ve had it on repeat for the past two days), I would suggest first watching her interview with Zane Lowe on the BeatsOne channel. If you have Apple Music, you can do this. If you don’t, I’m sure there’s a way you can see it. If nothing else, it explains why Gaga has made this record that is completely different than anything she’s done before. This album is about Gaga saying what she wants to say, getting things off of her chest that she’s been in need of getting out, and she’s one of the few artists currently putting out music that can do this as eloquently as she has with the tracks on Joanne. Beyoncé put out Lemonade this year that had some very politically charged statements, and Joanne is no different. With “Diamond Heart” she addresses the fact that she was a sexual assault survivor at the age of 19, singing, “some asshole broke me in/wrecked all my innocence”, but the song is a declaration of strength, saying that no matter what happened to her, her imperfections are nothing but the things that make her who she is. “Angel Down” is a gorgeously written ballad about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and I’m sure by extension to the more recent fatal police shooting victims as well. “Perfect Illusion”, as Gaga describes in her interview with Lowe, is also a song with a message. We live in a world so focused on covering up the ugly instead of dealing with it that we are becoming used to charades and illusions, and it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
The interview is worth a listen for one more reason: Gaga is an artist, and nothing else becomes more apparent after watching than that fact. She’s about the music. Joanne has many more melancholic moments than many expected and Gaga said essentially that that’s because it’s necessary to get through the pain before you can get to the party. She’s not going to write another pop dance record if there are things that need to be said, and she’s never been one to shy away from sticking up for the things she feels strongly about. I feel like after I watched it, I learned so much from an artist that feels so closely to how I feel about the music industry. She wants it about the music, not such a freaking business. I loved it and I think every single musician should watch it and listen to what she has to say because it’s so refreshing to hear someone else that feels the same way.
Back to that album though…
Joanne might possibly be the smartest album of 2016, and it’s definitely my second favorite Gaga album behind only The Fame Monster. It has the emotional honesty of Adele’s 25, the fearlessness about political issues as Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and at times, the minimalistic enjoyment of good songwriting and talented musicianship of Carole King’s Tapestry. Seriously, it’s refreshing to hear Gaga’s powerhouse vocals over gorgeous piano lines, and then a head banging guitar, and not just the synths you hear on every other pop song nowadays. That is the first reason why this is such a smart album. Because it combines some of the best qualities of the biggest albums of this year that I mentioned above, and adjusts them to Gaga’s personal style, which is unlike any other. It’s different, and it’s never able to be placed into a box. It’s constantly unpredictable.
And reason number two why this album is so smart is because Gaga is an intelligent artist. She’s done everything, amping up her pop sound from The Fame to 2013’s Artpop which was so produced, it was a techno world of it’s own. And, as she says in her interview, she’s always been ahead of the curve. She lead the world into it’s EDM driven sound that it has today, providing the platform for artists like Zedd and Diplo to achieve Top 10 success by bringing electronic music to the forefront. Now, when she’s had her way with electronica pop, she’s decided to once again do what pop has stopped doing: making music built from it’s roots of analog instruments and lyrics with emotional and meaningful content. And she’s not doing it with the thought process of what’s going to get her another platinum record. She’s made that clear that she could care less if she’s getting another #1 single out of it, as long as she’s getting her message across.
So, now to the music:
Starting out with “Diamond Heart”, you’ve realized you’re not in a dance hall. You’re in a dive bar, watching Gaga onstage with her band and a guitar, rocking like a crazy person. Like I said before, the lyrics of this song are declarations of strength, refusing to be affected by the sexual assault that she endured, and the upbeat rock beat just further proves that nothing is going to hold her back from unleashing her Gaga-ness.
Next, “A-YO”, one of the most upbeat songs on the whole record, fuses Mark Ronson’s funk expertise in the form of a bright catchy brass section, with head banging guitar riffs, likely inspired from Parker and Homme. It’s a clear selection in my opinion for a future radio single, and after listening to the whole record, it was a great choice to show the world that Gaga can do a little bit of everything. Finally, with it’s cheeky lyrics and snarling vocals, it’s one of the most signature Gaga songs despite it having such a different feel in genre from her past discography.
When “Joanne”, the title track, appears, this is the point for the listener to strap in. With a very singer/songwriter turn in sound, Gaga’s wheelhouse becomes clear. “Speechless” on The Fame Monster to this day remains one of my favorite songs of her’s by far, but this tribute ballad to her aunt, the woman she was named after and who she named her album after, she lyrically rips your heart in two. Opening on the lyric, “Take my hand, stay Joanne/ Heaven’s not ready for you” and having lost my grandmother last year who was my biggest supporter when I told her I would be a musician someday, this really hit me emotionally. The best lines, however, come at the end. “Honestly, I know where you’re going, and baby you’re just moving on/ And I’ll still love you even if I can’t see you anymore/ Can’t wait to see you soar”.
The ballads are very much the high points of the album, which has always been my opinion with Gaga. Her ability to write ballads is enamoring. My favorite is “Million Reasons”, though like I said “Angel Down” provides some incredibly touching social and political commentary, and the work tape is even more emotionally raw, and “Grigio Girls” is a very touching tribute to her friend Sonja that is battling breast cancer. “Million Reasons” however captures the art of Gaga’s delivery. Like Adele, but in a different way that I can’t describe in words, Gaga can deliver lyrics with a punch behind them, and in this track, she’s pleading. You’ve got to think about if she’s talking about fame as she has done from the beginning with her first record, and whether or not she should be making another record. I mean, that sounds like what she’s questioning in this hauntingly beautiful highlight, and I think that reason to keep going is her fans, which she of course knows.
“John Wayne” is the upbeat banger that I can’t wait to blast in my car with the windows down, as once again she straddles the line of rock and country, and smashes it. This also feels radio friendly for the future, which I would love to hear. Not unlike “A-YO”, it’s classic Gaga mixed with newfound Gaga.
“Come To Mama” felt like such a throwback kind of track, like it was released in the 70s, and with lyrics like “Dude in a labcoat and a man of God/ fought over prisms and a forty-day flood/ Well I say rainbows did more than they’ve ever done/ So why do we gotta, fight over ideas?”, once again adding her own voice to the growing political conversations forged into pop music. This is such a Mark Ronson-tinged track, that after a couple of listens, I’ve decided it’s the perfect combination of a Beatles and Amy Winehouse track as we would ever get, with horns that will have you snapping your fingers before you even notice it.
In the same vein of throwback sounds, “Hey Girl” with Florence Welch brings the two vocal powerhouses on a song that sounds like the sister of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets”, with it’s pulsing piano/synth line. With unifying lyrics about building each other up instead of tearing each other down, its quite a statement, and one that Gaga has been preaching since the beginning when she was being compared to Madonna and there seemed to be animosity from good ol’ Madge. I have to say, this track was a little underwhelming to me, but I thought it was a charmingly unexpected duet.
“Sinner’s Prayer” turns her into a full out cowboy, telling a story around a campfire of love gone wrong. It’s a very interesting turn of sound that to me is completely different than even some of the more crossover songs on this record. This sounds like a Johnny Cash kind of song, and it’s interesting to say the least. Another testament to Gaga triumphantly taking on every genre with this album.
“Dancin’ in Circles”, the Beck collaboration on the record, has a Latin kind of feel, reminiscent of her track “Americano” from Born This Way. It’s not my favorite on the record, I will admit. I like the verses and the chorus, and it’s very experimental which I think is impressive. It’s just not one of my favorites when compared to the rest of the record.
And as the album closes out, Gaga reminds you how much fun this album was to make with the laid back distorted march of “Just Another Day”, with a catchy melody, hook and some witty banter between herself and her band. This is her victory lap after an album that she knows is going to take everyone by surprise, all while reminding the listener that despite all of the material they’ve just listened to about heavy subject matter, you’re still living life. Get out there and enjoy what you’ve got. It’s the perfect bridge of her jazz styles with her pop musicianship, complete with slight scatting at the end. Roll credits.
Joanne is an album, my friends. All of my bias aside, since I’ve been a fan of Gaga’s since Day 1, this album is a work. It’s not a manufactured pop product that you feel was slaved over by 20+ writers to find the catchiest hook that sounds like everything else on the radio. This album was written with the intent of saying something, of being something. I’ve listened to albums where I like every song because they’re catchy or they’ve got good lyrics, but this is the first album I think of my adult life that has actually made me sit back and think as I listen to it. It’s quite an incredible record, and it’s such a lovely creation because it’s exactly what other artists should be doing. Regardless of commercial success, this album is a triumph and I only hope it gets recognized as one.