Eclectic & heartfelt, Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanne’ shows a master of her medium as musician & humanist
The evolution of Lady Gaga — as an artist, as an icon — has been one of the joys of pop-music appreciation for the last decade or so. She’s proved she can do it all. From Madonna wannabe to kewl party girl to feminist anthem singer to Maria von Trapp and Tony Bennett duet partner. And somehow, on Joanne, she shows in one place how masterfully she does it all.
So we meet her in the lead-off track, “Diamond Heart,” where the queen of dance-pop experiments with unusual time signatures and unexpected chord progressions.
Before we can fully process that, she transitions immediately into “A-YO,” a honkytonk-ish number with infectious syncopation on the hand-clapping chorus that makes you wanna two-step and funk out. Then, with the title track “Joanne,” she floats into a folky-acoustic ballad that Marianne Faithful might have covered. Gaga is a maestro of defying, then meeting, then exceeding expectations.
She goes back to vocal-centric ballad on “Million Reasons” (which she knocked out of the park on Saturday Night Live last week), showing not only her tender, spiritual side but also a fierceness — a velvet glove over a stone fist. I bow down to pray I try to make the world seem better / Lord, show me the way to cut through all this worn-out leather / I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away / But baby I just need one good one to stay she implores the boyfriend she loves but cannot stand. There’s something almost literary about her emotions here — Taylor Swift could learn how to sound less whiny from Gaga. She goes for the humanity more than the politics with “Angel Down” — I’m a believer it’s chaos / Where are our leaders? Ohhhh… / I’d rather save an angel down / … Angel down, angel down; why do people just stand around? — a plaintive plea in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. (She dedicated it to Trayvon Martin.)
Not every song soars to rare heights or even represents her playing to strengths as potently — and with 13 tracks, how could they be? (A 15th bonus track is a work tape of “Angel Down” that sears the song into you, if it weren’t already.) She settles into more familiar territory on “John Wayne,” typically lyricized with twee metaphors and sound distortions; and “Dancin’ in Circles,” which calls to mind “Alejandro.” They are not her strongest tracks on this disc, but even meh-Gaga surpasses most radio-friendly pop, as, for instance, on “Perfect Illusion,” the already-dropped lead single, which shows she has a firm understanding of what gets gay men to move on the dance floor.
She pays homage to sounds of the past on several tracks as well. “Come to Mama,” with its wailing sax and doo-woppy vibe, sounds like it could be from Billy Joel, or even The E Street Band, circa 1988; likewise, “Hey Girl” could be a mash-up of 1970s-era Elton John with some Motown soul thrown in (though on the chorus Gaga call-and-responses with Florence Jenkins from Florence and the Machine, which instantly updates it).
Gaga’s fans — and North Texas is Little Monsters Central — don’t need to be convinced that she’s more than just a blonde with good choreography and a fun Instagram account. She’s truly an artist in her medium. But it’s not just as a musician/singer/songwriter that she demonstrates her mettle; it’s as a humanist. She touches you in ways few recording artists do.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2016.