Lady Gaga has always been an artist to court controversy — despite being an enticing component central to her success, at times the overblown pop histrionics proved to be too much for some. This vampiric thirst for grandeur perhaps peaked with 'Born This Way’ but much of this momentum was lost following 2013’s confused and convoluted ‘Artpop’. Her latest, ‘Joanne’, finds Gaga mostly stripped of the bombast that permeated her early work and injected with surprising but fresh shades of country and light Americana.
One of the biggest talking points regarding the release has been the extraordinary list of collaborators that Gaga chose to work with (Mark Ronson, Beck and Josh Homme — just to name a few) and how they would impact the resulting record. In truth, the majority of the tracks don’t display any overbearing influence from these songwriting partners. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will most likely depend on your opinion of the singer in question. Most notable is the excellent lead single ‘Perfect Illusion’, which is drenched in Kevin Parker’s rich, vintage synth sounds and Ronson’s typically slick production. Lyrically, the track appears to reference both the haunting duality of a past relationship and the darker, serrated edges of social media.
Delirious rocker ‘John Wayne’ and the defiant pop of ‘A-YO’ burn with a feverish intensity and sees the 30 year-old New Yorker at her most playful. Though there are moments where the attempt to blend a myriad of distinct styles backfires slightly. ‘Come To Mama’ summons a lazy E Street Band groove and Florence Welch does her best to energise the otherwise languid, repetitive and similarly schmaltzy ‘90s R&B throwback ‘Hey Girl’. It’s ‘Dancin’ In Circles’, however, with its tropical arrangements and glaringly obvious lyrical allusions to female masturbation, that feels particularly dated and out of place.
‘Joanne’ is at its most pleasing during the album’s rather delightful country excursions, which all benefit from a comparatively minimal approach and less extravagant production. ‘Million Reasons’ and the sumptuous title cut both marry warm, stirring emotion with undeniably great choruses and are a showcase for Gaga’s brittle but powerful vocal. The self-proclaimed ‘aimless fake drifter’ Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty) lends a humorous hand on ‘Sinner’s Prayer’, while the beautifully sombre closer ‘Angel Down’ is accentuated by a lush sonic palette.
At only 39 minutes long, ‘Joanne’ stands comfortably as her shortest and most refined effort to date. Some will be baffled by the colliding genres, which don’t always mesh convincingly, and others may wonder what the collaborations would’ve sounded like had they turned out differently. ‘Joanne’ is certainly not the all-conquering opus it was intended to be and will prove divisive, but it remains a daring and exciting record, delivered from one of modern pop’s most unique and singular voices.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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