On her flamboyant early albums, Lady Gaga’s fascination with fame led to trenchant societal observations and subversions. The tepid 2013 album Artpopreversed that trend. With its vapid, debauched commentary—the kind at which she once sneered—the record wasn’t from the perspective of an outsider looking askance at celebrity culture, but from an artist who had internalized and embraced fame’s worst facets.
Post-Artpop, Gaga smartly retreated from being, well, Lady Gaga, and dialed back both her music and style. This reinvention involved collaborating with Tony Bennett on a jazz album, Cheek To Cheek; acting on American Horror Story: Hotel; and co-writing a grand, Oscar-nominated song, “Til It Happens To You.” Gaga is wisely keeping these detours separate from her pop career. Joanne, Artpop’s proper follow-up, contains no ham-fisted attempts at authenticity. Instead, Gaga tries to find a middle ground between her sophisticated present and glitzy, electropop past.
Joanne’s collaborators and co-writers are all comfortable with genre fluidity. Besides producer Mark Ronson, Gaga worked with Beck, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Florence Welch, Father John Misty, and BloodPop. However, Joanne at heart is a singer-songwriter album, with an emphasis on smart hooks and taut arrangements that place Gaga’s vocals firmly at the forefront. The record finds her belting out songs like a ’60s girl-group leader (the sepia-toned, horn-peppered “Come To Mama”), conjuring Stevie Nicks circa “Rhiannon” (the dewy vocal intro of “Diamond Heart”), or unleashing an Emmylou Harris-like warble (the superlative, stripped-down title track). Gaga’s always possessed one of music’s most unique singing voices, and on this album, its bluesy grit and raspy soul overtones are more prominent.
Unsurprisingly, Joanne’s best songs also highlight her vocal strengths. The yowling “Diamond Heart” has subtle electronic coils and serpentine guitar licks courtesy of Homme, who reprises the subtle accompaniment on the heel-kicking, disco-rock highlight “John Wayne.” “Sinner’s Prayer,” co-written with Father John Misty, has a ’70s desert-folk edge and gospel tinges; “Hey Girl” is a slow jam duet with Welch that praises the power of women supporting one another; and the pulsating electropop single “Perfect Illusion” works perfectly on Joanne as a pivot into the more somber second half.
The record stumbles, however, when Gaga doesn’t sound like herself. The snake-bit, sitar-augmented Beck collaboration “Dancin’ In Circles” feels like a cast-off from Gwen Stefani’s last record, mostly due to Gaga’s breathy, coquettish delivery and the song’s languid hip-hop beats. “Million Reasons,” meanwhile, possesses earnest but bland country-pop flair, perhaps owing to co-writer Hillary Lindsey, who also co-wrote Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.” Both Joanne songs are passable, but they sound like any pop artist could be singing them.
Now and in the past, the secret to Gaga’s success has been her outsize cult of personality, and the confidence and sincerity she brings to her performances. Think of Joanne like Stevie Nicks’ 1981 solo debut, Bella Donna. Both albums have distinct sonic parallels, mainly an early-’80s songwriting vibe that hovers somewhere between country, pop, rock, and early new wave. More importantly, both LPs find each woman defiantly standing on her own as an artist, separate from her own past glories, collaborators, and success. Joanne may not become the multiplatinum blockbuster Bella Donna was, but the record absolutely feels like Gaga is once again on an upward trajectory.