The thought of Lady Gaga making another dance record, and it’s been 8 years since her last, is an intriguing and potentially thrilling prospect.
The singer’s career was secured with a certain kind of simplistic Euro dance music that also embraced the kitsch, sentimental, euphoric and melodic qualities of the high-energy pop big in the early 80s. As important as the music was an outlandish image that borrowed heavily from pop cultural visionaries including David Bowie, Grace Jones and Madonna, but with Kermit the Frog attached – the Gaga touch.
From the introduction of the 2009’s The Fame Monster to the final roll out of Born This Way, still her best album, Lady Gaga could do no wrong. Art Pop followed – a flawed and inconsistent minor-work – and Lady Gaga’s imperial phase abruptly came to an end. Since, there have been several reincarnations: easy listening jazz chanteuse, a Vegas residency, cowgirl and a meta lead role in a blockbuster film.
The strongest associations with the artist, though, will always circle back to disco sticks, bad romances and telephone conversations with Beyoncé.
Chromatica, the sixth Lady Gaga album, is vaguely split into three parts, numbered accordingly and signalled by lush, gaudy orchestral interludes. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious themes, musically or lyrically, that differentiate them and these string parts are not usually linked to the beats that follow them.
‘Alice’ opens the first of these chapters and it’s as though the weaker, uninspired EDM parts of the Art Pop era had never left and have been set alongside equally worn-out Alice in Wonderland references. ‘Stupid Love’ efficiently judders into the Ariana Grande featuring ‘Rain on Me’, which is the first real success on the album (coming in at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and making chart history). Chunky disco house swirls around the two singers and it’s hard to deny the spontaneous joy and currently needed escapism created.
‘Free Woman’ attempts to follow a similar path both sonically and with its lyrical cry of empowerment against the odds, but the basic, flat production renders it faceless and insipid.
There are some odd choices on Chromatica; songs which occupy a space which is neither fully retro nor current. And there is no track here that sees Gaga explore the more ‘out-there’ eccentricities of her earlier albums, which have always been essential to her narrative (‘Dance in the Dark’, ‘Scheiße’, ‘Government Hooker’, ‘Mary Jane Holland’).
‘Plastic Doll’, which includes a Skrillex production credit when none of his signature sound is remotely apparent, has clunky, clichéd lyrics about not being a plastic toy and sounds like a Fame demo, rightly rejected. The idea of Blackpink collaborating with Lady Gaga is a fascinating prospect but ‘Sour Candy’ sounds rushed and almost identical to Katy Perry’s ‘Swish Swish’ from three years go.
‘1000 Doves’ is essentially a dated, trance-lite power ballad with a galloping beat, but lacks a proper chorus to help the song become less disposable.
Chromatica’s best tracks are the ones that make you want to listen a little closer or suggest something uncanny and ambiguous. Deep cut ‘911’ avoids the predominant trance and disco house tropes and uses electro-pop as a more subtle backbone, and is all the better for it. The song constantly shifts from one key to another, various vocal effects cut in and out, and Gaga robotically sings about drug reliance and emotional emergencies. It’s one of the strongest moments here.
‘Replay’ elaborates on mental health trauma whilst French house samples manically chase Gaga’s agonised, roaring vocal into a brilliantly effective, never-ending loop of psychotic dance-floor ecstasy. ‘Babylon’ is a fantastic, hysterical ballroom walk through both Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ and ‘Like a Player’. The fact that it still manages to be the most quintessentially Gaga track on Chromatica is quite an achievement.
It would have been genuinely exciting to hear how sessions with avant-pop producers like SOPHIE turned out but clearly any kind of experimentation with more left-field dance collaborators would not have fit the brief. There is a truly unexpected moment where the audaciously melodramatic, Euro-trance duet with Sir Elton on ‘Sines from Above’ takes a sonic swerve at the final 30 second mark and explodes into a rattling drum and bass coda. It would have been thrilling for Lady Gaga to trip the listener up like this more than once but clearly Chromatica is not that kind of record.
BloodPop has overseen the majority of the album’s production and his work with Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift and John Legend confirms that mainstream, dance music made for massive radio play was the record’s overriding intention. Chromatica will still sit nicely in Lady Gaga’s legacy of all-round entertainer, however. Her earlier work’s spikier and more artful edges may have been sandpapered off for good now, but this was probably part of Stefani Germanotta game-plan all along.