Music review: ‘Joanne,’ Lady Gaga
Since its release on Oct. 21, much has been said about Lady Gaga’s fifth studio album, “Joanne,” and not all of it kind. Amanda Petrusich, writing for Pitchfork, called it “tentative” and “an affront to the Gaga of yesteryear”; in a review for the Washington Post, Chris Richards calls it bland, even suggesting that she is now “exuding the quiet desperation of a fraud.” Other reviewers have questioned whether or not the album is too tepid an outing for the famously outrageous pop icon — we all remember the meat dress, right? — and have suggested that Gaga is losing her edge.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but they’re wrong.
It’s true that I’m a devoted fan of Lady Gaga, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you will. But since buying the album the day it came out, I’ve been listening to it nonstop, and not just because it’s her first studio album in three years. There’s a track for every mood on “Joanne,” which comes across as a collection of musical styles and influences that truly expose Gaga’s heart and soul. There’s the country-inspired “John Wayne” and “Sinner’s Prayer”; a smooth, R&B-influenced duet with Florence Welch, of Florence + The Machine, “Hey Girl”; even a boppy, playful track called “Just Another Day” whose piano and horns is reminiscent of some of the more jaunty tunes from The Beatles.
And there’s the album’s first single, “Perfect Illusion,” a track that struggled to chart but one that has a pulsating beat and soaring vocals which are a more sophisticated version of the clubby, dance-inducing tunes she became famous for.
“Joanne” also has its share of lyrics that range from tender to poignant to mournful, with Gaga — a talented lyricist who cut her teeth in the industry as a songwriter — writing or co-writing every track. The title track was named for Gaga’s aunt, whose death at age 19 — long before Gaga herself was born — had a profound effect on her family. In it, she begs “take my hand … heaven’s not ready for you,” a sentiment familiar to anyone who has ever lost a loved one.
There’s plenty to be said about heartbreak, as well; although Gaga hasn’t said so explicitly, her relationship and recent breakup with fiance Taylor Kinney was undoubtedly an influence, from the lyric “it wasn’t love, it was a perfect illusion” in “Perfect Illusion” to the entirety of “Million Reasons” — a song that lays bare the pain of realizing you have “a hundred million reasons to walk away” but still desperately wanting “just one good one to stay.”
The biggest complaint so far of “Joanne” has been the seeming loss of Gaga’s radical identity. But it’s been nearly a decade since the release of her first album, “The Fame” — an eternity in pop music — and it’s laughable to believe that she hasn’t been growing and changing alongside her fans. “Joanne” certainly is a departure from the style that made her a star, but she’s not abandoning her music and her message as a creative force.
Gaga’s fans, the “little monsters,” sometimes call her Mother Monster, and eventually all children grow up and leave the home — allowing mother to follow her own pursuits.
With this album, perhaps Gaga is exploring a new kind of freedom and all the idiosyncrasies that come with it.