Lady Gaga, ARTPOP. So much for that high-concept, post-modern ingenuity that ARTPOP promised even before Lady Gaga hawked it as the album of … not the year, not the decade, but of the millennium.
This isn’t that album. Not even close. Not when it comes to the innovativeness it touted, anyway. If this is art, so is “Poker Face.” And so is dressing up in a frock made of dead cow. This is Gaga to the extreme; everything is done with more cartoonish flamboyancy, and — if it’s even possible at this point — exaggerated to the fullest. While Born This Way was at least, despite its exhausting preachiness, an evolution that demonstrated sophisticated vanguard where self-importance at least felt musically validated, this takes three steps back. Neither as clever nor avant-garde as it thinks it is, ARTPOP is a straightforward, ’80s-fashioned electro-pop piece that, with a satirical edge, riffs on fame, drugs and other vapidness … the very themes of queen Gaga before she led her misunderstood Monsters down the road to empowerment.
With B-52s camp, “Donatella” and “Fashion!” fit the homo bill, and they’re both amusing … if you were amused also by the unintentional awesomeness of Showgirls. Part horror show, part whore show, ARTPOP is gaudy (see “Swine,” where this meat obsession of hers translates into metaphor), but it’s hard to turn away from something that tries so hard to be tacky and messy and just so … weird. Even an R. Kelly cameo, on “Do What U Want,” seems out there — and then it all comes together pretty perfectly. But it’s “Dope,” a rollicking power ballad that endears, and the smashing Springsteenian “Gypsy” that our Mother Monster should keep in mind next time she tries to hustle pop music as high art.
Two-and a-half stars.
Arcade Fire, Reflektor. Not long into Arcade Fire’s 80-minute epic of rhythmic mythology — where themes of rebirth thrive amidst the usual sociopolitical go-tos — is an empowering statement of visibility that can’t help but be heard as a queer affirmation. With frontman Win Butler championing the oppressed, the song is called “We Exist,” but it’s not the only one that’s outcast-minded: David Bowie vibes pipe through the garage-rockery of outsider anthem “Normal Person,” a challenge to societal conformity.
But the Montreal troupe doesn’t just tackle the bigger picture; they look inward and tear down their own conventions — their own “normal.” Reflektor breaks the band’s rules, abandoning the Neil Young-inspired ’70s sounds of The Suburbs, their Grammy-winning LP and last release, for an adventuresome, dance-inspired work that radically shifts from quintessential Arcade Fire. With former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on board as producer, Reflektor breaks into the dance-punk that is Murphy’s forte, winding up somewhere in the realm of the band’s older “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” an electro triumph. Here, a frantic parade of noise simmers into a charged punk anthem on the defiant “Joan of Arc,” disco-era strings line the slow-burn of “Porno,” and “Afterlife” — with Butler and wife Régine Chassagne’s poignant exchanges, also heard on the transcendent standout “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” — is a euphoric jaunt of survival on the album’s back, and better, half.
— Chris Azzopardi