“Joanne” by Lady Gaga

This is the most recent studio album by singer-songwriter-musician and former Pop sensation Stefani Germanotta, better known by her increasingly unfortunate stage name Lady Gaga. In all seriousness, I have to imagine she regrets choosing that name at this point…it worked for what she was trying to do for the first few years of her career, but now that she’s trying to establish herself as a serious artist, it’s becoming more and more of a liability.

In any case, for those who need a refresher course, Lady Gaga started out as a Pop starlet with pretensions of avant-garde artistry that she didn’t really try all that hard to back up. Unlike her closest peer, Katy Perry, she actually had genuine talent, but almost seemed to downplay it in order to not draw attention from her over-the-top persona. At first, this didn’t matter…most of the public was eating out of her hand, and she became the same kind of Pop culture icon that Madonna was at her peak. But after Adele broke into the mainstream and showed people what a real genius-level Pop star looked like, people gradually realized that their supposed visionary genius was a fraud.

After an extended hiatus and an attempted ‘comeback’ album that did little more than embarrass her, she spent the next few years working in fields of music unrelated to the Pop charts. She made a duets album of classic standards with legendary singer Tony Bennett, and crafted a harrowing, Oscar-nominated theme song for an ultra-serious documentary about sexual assault cases, and she would follow up this album by starring in a surprisingly respectable remake of the classic movie musical A Star is Born. This time associating with more legit musicians and genres seems to have done her a lot of good, as the quality of her work has actually improved immensely since her last ‘Pop’ album was released.

This album was nominally intended, at least in the eyes of the public, as her ‘comeback’ to the Pop world, and yet unlike her last ‘comeback’ album, Artpop, which reeked of desperation, this album seems almost indifferent toward its own level of success on the Pop charts. Strange as it may sound, Lady Gaga is not really a mainstream Pop artist anymore, and while this album only really produced one ‘hit’ to speak of, it wound up emulating Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, another album by a seemingly superannuated former Pop sensation, by becoming a major underground success outside the mainstream Pop scene.

Some fans of her early work complained about Gaga discontinuing the bizarre antics that she used to get attention back in her ‘Pop’ days (I remember reading a particularly idiotic argument along those lines from The Washington Post‘s resident Pop music critic when this album first came out). These arguments are stupid and hypocritical for a number of reasons, but the most obvious one is that Gaga’s ‘freak’ persona almost never spilled over into her actual music. Yes, she made surreal music videos, gave outlandish live performance, and made an ass of herself at public events in all kinds of bizarre ways. But apart from “Bad Romance” and to a lesser extent “Poker Face”, her songs were nearly all relatively normal (if often above-average) Pop music of the period. “Just Dance” and “Telephone” were fairly conventional club songs, “Alejandro” sounds uncannily like an Ace of Base song, “Born This Way” is a pretty standard ‘love yourself’ anthem, “You and I” is a pastiche of Pop-Country, and “Edge of Glory” is fairly straightforward retro-Classic Rock. This album has a more normal marketing image than most of her earlier work, but its actual content isn’t particularly different.

The primary difference between this and Gaga’s earlier work lies in its consistency. This album, which draws mostly on influences from Classic Rock and Classic Country, doesn’t have a single real dud on it. Even the third single, “A-YO”, while probably the least successful item on the album and thus not the best choice for a single, is a fairly solid and enjoyable song. The highlights are the Springsteen-meets-Jim-Steinman lead single, “Perfect Illusion”; the Country-flavored “Million Reasons”; the scorching album opener, “Diamond Heart”; the title track, an optimistic song about grief; the erotically off-kilter “Dancing in Circles”, penned by none other than the legendary Beck himself; and the heartbreaking “Angel Down”, about the Treyvon Martin shooting. But pretty much everything on the album is strong, even the bonus tracks, which is a rarity in Pop music…even good artists tend to rely on blatant filler material to fill out their deluxe editions. Several of the songs feature production by Mark “Uptown Funk” Ronson, and Florence Welch shows up for a duet, “Hey Girl”…and impressively, Gaga manages to hold her own against one of modern music’s most monumental voices.

Remember, the only Lady Gaga album to even approach this level of consistency before was the eight-song EP The Fame Monster, and even it had one blatant filler track in “Teeth”. Gaga’s done songs as good as anything on this album before (“Just Dance”, “Poker Face”, “Bad Romance”, “The Edge of Glory”, etc.); what makes this a breakthrough is that she managed to do so many of them in one place. If albums really do matter, then this is the opus that elevated Gaga to the prestigious rank of genuine ‘Album Artist’, and that has to count for something.

This isn’t a world-changing, genius-level masterpiece album like Adele’s 21 or Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Beyonce’s Lemonade, but it is a consistently excellent collection of sophisticated Pop songs—indeed, as a whole it is a more satisfying collection than Adele’s follow-up 25. But then, Lady Gaga is not, nor was she ever, a visionary genius…just a solid, dependable talent who unfortunately spent her early career trying to pass herself off as something she wasn’t. And while her flamboyant past and increasingly awkward choice of stage name are still somewhat hindering her attempts to reinvent herself as a serious artist, this set proved that she certainly has the raw talent necessary for it.

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