REVIEW: Lady Gaga’s Big Risks Pay Off on ‘Joanne,’ the Album She Was Born to Make

Talent Always Wins
How Lady Gaga monster-clawed her way back to cultural dominance.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Joanne is Lady Gaga’s best album to date and it’s the album that anyone that has paid attention to her career, beyond the club hits and meat dresses, should have been expecting.

It is also an album that takes huge risks by eschewing popular sounds in favor of analog instrumentation, classic songwriting motifs, and an incredibly varied palette of sonic inspirations, including country, folk, pop, electronic, soul, glam and ’70s rock. Creatively, Joanne’s risks pay off spectacularly. Commercially? That may be another story.

After the perceived failure of Gaga’s last pop album, ARTPOP — which, according to Nielsen, is in fact eligible to be certified platinum in the U.S. with 1.4 million sold (SPS) — Gaga could have (should have, according to some) taken the quickest route to a big, friendly radio hit by appropriating trendy sounds and working with the “right” producers. She did, in fact, record almost a full album’s worth of songs with RedOne, the producer with whom she worked on her biggest hits (“Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro,” and others). This news perhaps fueled expectations that she was planning to return to the big dance-pop sounds of her first several albums. As it turns out, only one of the RedOne tracks, “Angel Down,” makes the final cut of Joanne, and he’s only credited as a co-writer, not a producer. What’s more, “Angel Down” is a ballad — an undeniable highlight of the album, arguably her best ballad ever, and a track with the potential to be a career-defining song — so those crossing their fingers for “Poker Face Redux” are shit out of luck. Everyone else is in for something special.

Gaga has been open about wanting to strip away some of the excesses of her persona in order to get people to really hear her music, a feat which will come easily to fans (at least those who weren’t expecting her to remake The Fame Monster), but not to those who are skeptical of her place in the 2016 pop landscape. She’s also been incredibly vocal about her musical influences since Day One of her career. Though most people are quick to point to Madonna — fair enough, but also: let it go —  Gaga has always been more comfortable citing artists like David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Neil Young, Marc Bolan, and the like as the biggest influences on her artistry. While Gaga previously nodded to those influences in ways both subtle and explicit, Joanne sees her, for the first time on a studio album, outright embracing them while also revisiting the kind of music she made before achieving fame. The result is Gaga’s most timeless and diverse collection yet. This will excite many and disappoint some, but either way, it marks a major turning point in Gaga’s career.

Much is already being made about the “toned-down” nature of the Joanne era, with many fretting over Gaga’s decision to ditch the outlandish costumes (see: crop tops and daisy dukes) and behemoth dance songs (see: “Million Reasons“). The thing is, a few specific songs aside, Joanne is not a stripped-back affair. Thanks to the talents of Mark Ronson and BloodPop, who produced the entire album along with Gaga, Joanne’s sounds are cleaner, more organic, more modern, and less cluttered than they were on any previous Gaga record. But it’s hardly minimalist, or even understated. As a whole body of work, it speaks more thoroughly about Gaga (both the character and the human) than any of her previous releases. The big choruses, the clever hooks, the party anthems, the name-brand whiskey whispers, the political messaging, the theatricality: it’s all still here. Joanne is a Lady Gaga album, through-and-through, but it’s an edited, streamlined, and ultimately more personal creation that amalgamates Gaga’s past, present, and future.

Perfect Illusion,” Joanne’s first (and so far only) official single, turns out to be a misleading introduction to the set. It’s a good song (if not, unfortunately, a big hit), and it works just fine in the context of the album. But having listened to Joanne in full, it seems like an odd choice for a lead. (A case of label interference? Quite possibly.) Few songs on Joanne are as loud and relentless as “Perfect Illusion,” a song that has more in common with the ’80s rock opera ambitions of Born This Way than the rest of the album it actually appears on.

“Good thing I know what I’m worth / Want a good thing? Put the money down first.” – “Diamond Heart

Album opener (and highlight) “Diamond Heart” is a better indication of what to expect. It’s a “Bad Romance”-sized pop song masquerading as a Bruce Springsteen-esque classic rock stadium anthem. Over gentle keyboards, Gaga begins her tale with a reference to her pop star origin story: “Young wild American, looking to be something / Out of school, go-go’n for a hundred or two.” It builds to a truly killer chorus — never has something demanded a double fist pump more than “Come on, baby, do you have a girlfriend?”  — and one of the album’s most quotable lines: “I might not be flawless but you know I got a diamond heart.” And yet, for all its rocking bravado, the mention of a diamond heart, clearly an allusion to the engagement ring she received from Taylor Kinney, brings with it a smackdown of stomach-churning sadness. (The pair is currently Ross-and-Rachel-ing it through a “break.”)

Likely second single “A-Yo” keeps the energy up and ushers in Joanne’s first flirtation with country. It’s the first of three tracks co-written by Nashville songwriter extraordinaire Hillary Lindsey, but it’s more honky-tonk-whiskey-blues-dive-bar meets funk-pop than Carrie Underwood (for whom Lindsey wrote “Jesus Take the Wheel). “A-Yo” is all attitude, confidence, and fun, with sharp, angular guitar lines that wouldn’t be out of place on a St. Vincent record. It’s easy to see why they’re floating it as a potential second single, and it’s going to sound great at the Super Bowl.

Dancin’ in Circles,” a Fame Monster-esque ode to sexual desire and masturbation, features a writing assist from Beck and a dancehall production that could almost, maybe, possibly fit in nicely with songs currently devouring radio airwaves. Though it flirts with radio trends, it mercifully does not submit to them. Instead, it recalls Gaga’s earlier penchant for pushing pop sounds to weirder, more interesting places. (The breakdown near the end spins out and turns, briefly, into a Bollywood-influenced dance explosion, because of course it does.) Still, it stands out as the most immediate “single-sounding” song on Joanne, though the racy lyrics — “Up all night tryna rub the pain out” and “Funk me downtown” — could hinder its chances at a successful Hot 100 run. (Cue #JusticeForDancinInCircles.)

Joanne’s biggest surprise is “Come to Mama,” a deliriously fun, cheeky take on the Can’t We All Just Get Along and Pray for World Peace anthem that has been falling in and out of favor since the ’60s. Father John Misty, who also worked on the smoldering “Sinner’s Prayer,” is credited as one of the song’s co-writers, and it shows; elements of the lyrics’ satirical humor hint back at his “Holy Shit” and “Bored in the USA.” Sonically, the song is a delightful Frankenstein’s Monster of Elton John-brand glam rock and Phil Spector-produced ’60s girl pop. The chorus — “Come to mama / tell me who hurt ya / there’s gonna be no future / if we don’t figure this out” — is straight off of a Ronettes’ greatest hits compilation. As Gaga insists that “the only prisons that exist are ones we put each other in” over the brassy, ballsy production, you really want to believe this woman could save the world from itself.

“Why do we gotta tell each other how to live? The only prisons that exist are ones we put each other in.” – “Come to Mama”

Florence Welch shows up on the album’s only duet, “Hey Girl,” a sweet, surprisingly gentle soul song about female friendship that would owe its entire existence to The 1970s Singer-Songwriter How-To Handbook were it not for a mysterious, wobbly synth line that meanders throughout. That synth line, likely the contribution of BloodPop, whom Ronson credits with modernizing some of the more classic arrangements, is a truly ingenious addition that elevates the song to an entirely new plane, somewhere far above simple homage. It’s not just the production that makes “Hey Girl” a standout, though: Gaga and Welch sound incredible together. What could have very easily turned into a belting competition is in actual execution quite subdued: warm, woozy, intimate, and ultimately, befitting of the song’s message of women supporting women.

Some of Joanne’s best moments come in the form of ballads, the first of which is the title track. “Joanne” follows the raucous “A-Yo” and is an ethereal folk song that brings down the volume as it turns up the emotional drama. On “Joanne,” Gaga’s voice is warm-as-whiskey and beautifully restrained as she sings to her late aunt, who she never met, but who has acted as a kind of guardian angel throughout Gaga’s life. “Million Reasons,” co-written with Lindsey, toys with twang, but is, at its heart, a soaring pop-rock ballad in the vein of “Speechless.” Its powerful bridge is one of the most arresting moments on the entire album. Standard Edition closer, the aforementioned “Angel Down,” could well be Joanne’s most powerful moment. (It could well be the song Gaga is remembered for long after she’s gone.) “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, evoking imagery of police shootings, acts of terrorism like the Pulse nightclub massacre, and the intensifying violence that seems to be tearing the world apart. Later, she asks, “Where are our leaders?,” a question so fitting as we suffer through this 2016 election hellscape it feels downright eerie. The last thirty seconds feature a barely-comprehensible Gaga muttering “Save that angel / hear that angel / catch that angel” over distorted backing vocals, vinyl scratches, and sparse harp. It’s as bone-chilling as it is gorgeous, and listener tears are almost guaranteed.

With just 11 tracks on the Standard Edition (and 14 on the Deluxe Edition), Joanne is thankfully free of filler, though there are a couple of songs that don’t quite reach the great heights to which they aspire. “John Wayne” veers a bit close to filler territory for my taste. It’s nowhere near bad — I would even argue its inclusion here is justified — but it does retread old Gaga ground: her already well-documented obsession with Bad Boys, her love of using the language of drug addiction as a metaphor for love, the bombastic production that is out of step with the rest of the album (but that is actually pretty in line with, say, ARTPOP’s “Mary Jane Holland“). Then again, there’s Josh Homme’s winning guitar and that heavenly, heavenly bridge, so checkmate: Gaga. “Sinner’s Prayer” features an incredible vocal take, an appealing smoky energy, and arguably some of the best lyrics on the album, but there is a stock quality to the music —think Generic Jaunty Mountain Blues Folk Song — that stops it from soaring above pastiche. But all things considered, Joanne’s transgressions are minor, and every song earns its place.

As for the Deluxe Edition tracks, they’re nice to have, if not exactly essential. (That they were relegated to Bonus Track Status is a good indicator that Gaga has become better at self-editing.) “Grigio Girls,” the final Lindsey co-write, leans back into contemporary country sounds and features the Ultimate Girls’ Night lyrics and exactly one Spice Girls shout-out. On paper, its reads as saccharine-sweet (and honestly, a bit #BasicWhiteGirl), but the song somehow works in spite of that, maybe because the gently propulsive guitar carries with it an undercurrent of deep melancholy. (It was written in tribute to a friend of Gaga’s who is battling breast cancer.) “Just Another Day,” the best of the three, is a throwback not only to T.Rex’s signature ’70s glam rock sound but also to Gaga’s own pre-Fame oeuvre. “Angel Down [Work Tape]” is essentially just the demo version of the Standard Edition closer, and it’s notable mostly because it allows the listener insight into how the right production can change an idea for the better. Her vocal on “[Work Tape]” is much more… theatrical (some would say overwrought). The finished version wisely shows more restraint. As a curiosity, the demo is nice to have. As an album track, I could take it or leave it.

“I confess I am lost / in the age of the social / On our knees, take a test / to be lovin’ and grateful.” – “Angel Down”

With Joanne, Gaga bravely takes a huge risk: it sounds nothing like anything other popular musicians are making, probably because she’s the only popular artist who could have made it. But she also takes a huge leap forward in her own artistry. She does so by looking back — at her family history and the history of artists she idolizes — but also by looking forward, toward the artist she wants to become and the future she envisions for herself, her friends, her family, and her fans. She also looks inward, offering listeners raw glimpses of the woman underneath the inscrutable fashion and behind the most influential pop hits of the past decade. Never has she sounded more natural or more in-tune with her messaging, which, as always, is fiercely political even when it’s personal. Joanne sees her pushing her own boundaries and pushing her voice to new places and strange extremes. It sees her exploring sounds she abandoned a decade ago as well as sounds that are completely new to her. No one is likely to give her credit for it, but Joanne is every bit as musically diverse as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, even if it (deliberately) lacks that album’s overarching narrative and ambitious video component. There will be people who claim her refusal to stick to the genre of music that made her famous is creative desperation. There will be people who don’t get it. There will people who don’t want to get it. She’s going to lose some people along the way, but she’s going to find new people too.

The greatest musicians, or at least my favorites — PJ Harvey, Björk, David Bowie, and yes, even Madonna — never make the same album twice. They fight endlessly to evolve, challenge themselves, and stay ambitious; they refuse to let themselves become what everyone expects them to be. Five albums in, Gaga is proving herself worthy of that particular pantheon of Rock and Pop Gods. For those of you who want your musicians to keep delivering cleverly-modified versions of their first hits, those pop stars are out there; I can give you a list. For the rest of us, there’s Lady Gaga Joanne.

GRADE: A-

Highlights: “Diamond Heart,” “Joanne,” “Dancin’ in Circles,” “Come to Mama,” “Hey Girl,” “Angel Down”

Joanne is out Oct. 21, 2016. Pre-order on Amazon and/or iTunes. Stream it below.