In our review of ‘Perfect Illusion’ we questioned whether we would have listened to it so much had it been released by any other artist than Lady Gaga. The same can very much be said for her fifth studio album, Joanne. That’s not to say it’s a bad album – because trust us, it’s pretty darn spectacular – but it’s country twang is more of a detriment than a benefit that is surely going to alienate some listeners.
Like its lead single, we probably wouldn’t have repeated Joanne since its release were it released by any other artist, and we certainly wouldn’t have bought it. Which is a shame, because Joanne is a good album. Vocally it’s sensational; lyrically it’s stunning; sonically it’s… ah. Two out of three ain’t bad, right?
I’m not searching for ‘Bad Romance V.2’ – the best artists never try to repeat themselves. If ‘Bad Romance’ is Gaga’s magnum opus she’s still gonna have a long career. But I’m not entirely sure I was looking for a country album, either.
That said, Gaga should be applauded (she lives for it, after all) on every level for trying something new. Country never hampers the charts in any way. If Gaga still has any hold over the music scene (and I wholeheartedly believe she does), expect many imitations. Joanne will leave a legacy.
Perhaps the most country-esque track on Joanne comes in the form of ‘Sinner’s Prayer’, especially in its chorus which incorporates strumming guitar and a foot-tapping beat. But surprisingly it does what all great songs do – it tells a story. ‘Came down the mountain / Draggin’ our love affair / Put on a pretty little number I’m wearin’ you still,’ Gaga opens the track in sultry fashion. Her voice suits the genre, even if the genre doesn’t suit the radio.
Title track ‘Joanne’, one of three outright ballads, also features a country beat, but this time it doesn’t quite work. It detracts from the emotive content of the lyrics, an ode to Gaga’s late aunt (who she was named after) who died aged 19 of Lupus. Still, the lyrics pack a punch. ‘Take my hand / Stay Joanne / Heaven’s not ready for you / Every part of my aching heart / Needs you more than the angels do,’ Gaga sings, and it’s likely a feeling that every listener will empathise with. We all miss someone in heaven. ‘Joanne’, at its core, is simple and the lyrics shine above the sound.
Opening track ‘Diamond Heart’ starts slow and soft, and serves as the perfect introduction to Joanne. It’s about her past experience with sexual assault: ‘Some asshole broke me in / Wrecked all my innocence / I’ll just keep go-go’n / And this dance is on you.’ As such, it’s powerful. As is its core message: ‘I’m not flawless but I gotta diamond heart.’ Gaga is sick of saying she’s not perfect; rather she lets her vocal speak for her, and in that aspect she is perfect. No listener can say otherwise.
There are a few tracks that don’t work as well as others. ‘A-YO’ sounds like a poor Britney song – just look at ‘Private Show’ off her recent album Glory. Whilst it does its job of getting the listener to clap along, it’s perhaps the only example of her lyricism not being up to scratch, even if her deliverance of ‘Mirror on the ceilin’ is pretty darn great. Likewise, ‘Come To Mama’ sounds like it should be an outtake. Lyrically – like much of the album – it’s special. It’s about accepting one another – ‘Everybody’s got to love each other / Stop throwin’ stones at your sisters and your brothers’ – and letting people live their lives how they want to – ‘Why do we gotta tell each other how to live? / The only prisons that exist are the ones we put each other in.’ But ‘Come to Mama’ sounds dated. Maybe it should have stayed on the cutting room floor, which is a shame, because its message is powerfully simple.
Gaga continues her trend for feminist songwriting in ‘Hey Girl’ and ‘Grigio Girls’, the former which features Florence Welch. Both artists compliment one another nicely; their voices gel joyously to produce an ode to supporting your fellow woman. ‘Hey girl hey girl / We can make it easy if we lift each other / Hey girl hey girl / We don’t need to keep on one-in’ up another,’ they sing over the chorus; if ‘Hey Girl’ doesn’t get you feeling good, you’re cold inside. This may just be Gaga referencing the media’s need to pit female artists against one another, when really they can stand by themselves. Like much of Joanne, it’s simple, only this time it works exceptionally well. Future single, perhaps?
‘Grigio Girls’, meanwhile, is reportedly a track about Gaga’s personal friend Sonja who is fighting cancer. It’s about having a drink with your friends and forgetting your troubles, as fleeting as that experience may be. ‘Sonja was Joanne’s friend / Tough girls on the mend / So when I’m feelin’ small I toss that cork and call / On the pinot, pinot grigio girls,’ Gaga sings, and here the country vibes gel exceptionally well with her drawn-out and, somewhat, emotive vocal.
Fellow deluxe track ‘Just Another Day’ is reportedly inspired by the likes of David Bowie (who Gaga has long credited as an inspiration for her – just look at the cover of The Fame), Marc Bolan, and the Beatles. ‘It’s probably the most New York-glam-pop song on the album,’ Gaga said of the track. And you can certainly hear these influences. It sounds like a sixties ditty right out of the Beatles discography, or Bowie’s self-titled debut (y’know, the one that didn’t feature ‘Space Oddity’). It’s got a real positive message over this jaunty backing beat: ‘And pick up unique style I’ll kick around today / And create simple thoughts / I’ll laugh in humble ways.’ This may just be Gaga looking to the future after her recent break from fiancé Taylor Kinney.
This break rears its head on several other tracks, too. ‘Perfect Illusion’ is pretty obviously about this breakup, even if Gaga claims otherwise – ‘I still feel the blow but at least now I know / It wasn’t love, it wasn’t love / It was a perfect illusion.’ The song sounds like it has more bass than when it was first released. Maybe that’s just because it’s squashed amongst other tracks, but the darker tone compliments the lyrics nicely. You can’t deny that this isn’t a grower. Meanwhile on ‘John Wayne’ Gaga discusses ‘Two lovers headed for a dead end’ and claims that ‘He called / I cried / We broke.’ But this emotion is layered over the strumming beat courtesy of Mark Ronson and Bloodpop so that it’s swallowed amongst scuzzy guitars and a glitchy backing track. This is an album highlight.
As are ‘Dancin’ in Circles’ and ‘Angel Down’, the latter of which may just be the song of the album. But we’ll get to that in a moment. ‘Dancin’ in Circles’ is a sexy little number that has Gaga sing about masturbation (maybe): ‘Up all night tryin’ to rub the pain out.’ Amid the latin flare Gaga’s penchant for an addictive chorus flares. ‘Tap down those boots while I beat around / Let’s funk downtown,’ she sings over and over, and by the end of your first listen of Joanne that is all you’ll have in your head. It’s addictive! This song will definitely get you dancin’ in circles.
But ‘Angel Down’ is, in a word, stunning. ‘Shots were fired on the street / By the church where we used to meet / Angel down / Angel down / But the people just stood around,’ Gaga sings in perhaps her most vulnerable vocal to date. This song really is masterful. She’s singing about US shootings of innocent African Americans by authorities, and asks ‘Where are our leaders?’ This is Gaga’s most honest track on Joanne, because it’s a very current topic that needs to be addressed. The bridge, midway through, in which Gaga warbles hauntingly, induces goosebumps. It’s hard to top it, but Gaga may finally have a contender for ‘Bad Romance’.
So what of the overall sound of Joanne? It’s certainly consistent, unlike the disjointed ARTPOP, and it’s certainly topical, like Born This Way. Whilst the production has been stripped back, so, too, has the auto-tuned aspects, allowing Gaga’s vocal to soar. Just look at ‘Angel Down (Work Tape)’, the stripped back demo in which Gaga sings with a simple piano. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Joanne (Work Tape) released in the future to highlight Gaga’s impeccable voice.
This may not be the album many were wanting, but it’s raw, honest and emotional. It’s an album worthy of the adjective PERSONAL. 50 years down the line, Joanne will likely stand high as one of Gaga’s best albums ever.