By Colin Gallant
Universal Music Canada
Bon Jovi, Bret Michaels, and Jenna Maroni: just three pop/rock acts to have pulled the now-classic “going country” maneuver. With much of Joanne, Lady Gaga is the latest to join their ranks – to mixed success. There are a handful of worthwhile surprises from the artist born Stefani Germanotta that we’ll get to a bit later, but overall Joanne is not the hard-won reinvention many expected of her.
In the three years since Gaga’s worst-received full-length, ARTPOP, she’s done much to shed the expectations that came along with her larger than life persona that mixed up high- and low-brow forms of expression, capturing all the world’s attention along the way. She won a Golden Globe for her performance on American Horror Story, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, and nabbed a Grammy for her album of jazz standards (another classic sidestep for an out-of-vogue pop star) with Tony Bennett.
With all that branching outdone, what were fans to expect upon the announcement of Joanne? A Sasha Fierce-esque character? Maybe even a Chris Gaines? In fact, Joanne is the name of a deceased aunt she never met and happens to share a sexual assault trauma with. On the title track Gaga strums tenderly and restrains her vocals to a vulnerable crackle as she implores her aunt not to go into the afterlife but instead stay with her family. A pretty standard grief track, though one suspects that’s because of the lack of the room for nuance in pop music rather than Gaga not having complicated feelings about it all. Early in the album, “Joanne” reinforces that Gaga knows which muscles to flex to best serve a song’s tone, never falling victim to over-belted wails.
It’s a shame she doesn’t quite pull that part of her act off when she adopts a new tonality for the “gone country” contingent of the record. From opener “Diamond Heart” through “John Wayne” (yes, really) and along to “Million Reasons,” Gaga misses the mark of a successful genre transition with too-affected nasality and flattened consonant annunciation. It’s the voice your friend Steve, whose OkCupid page says he’s into all music except country and metal, makes when he wants to get a cheap laugh. In fairness, these are the absolute low points on an album that does come with strong highlights and more successful new fields of exploration.
“Sinner’s Prayer” is the one slice of Dixie-fried Gaga (unless you count the title track, which lies closer to folk ballad than country) that pans out. It’s also a song where her cast of major supporting characters shines brightest. Written by Gaga, Thomas Brenneck, Mark Ronson (co-producer for the entirety of the album) and Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty), it’s a western fable about two tainted people in an explosive love affair. It’s where Gaga best commits to Southern mysticism and benefits from the dual guitars of Sean Lennon and Josh Homme – one smoky and mysterious, the other a bright lilt that carries the tune.
The following three tracks that conclude the standard version of the album are a hat trick. “Come to Mama” is a bit hammy in its let’s-all-just-get-along sentiment, but cabaret vocal from Gaga and a Phil Spector Christmas meets Let’s Dance Bowie composition offers what a lot of us want from pop – a simple, feel good moment.
“Hey Girl” puts both feet firmly in the ‘70s with its near exact interpretation of the rhythm from “Bennie and the Jets” paired with psychedelic synth squeals and harp plucked by duet partner Florence Welch. It’s a girl-power, support-one-another anthem that works quite well due to Gaga’s turn as a supporting character, letting Welch’s vocal dramatics take the lead.
Finally there’s “Angel Down,” a song that’s been interpreted both as a little too pandering and as a sincere plea. It touches on the confusion of the social media era and puts police brutality against people of colour into the center of its yens. A minimal, twinkling instrumental takes the background as Gaga gives a perfectly measured amount of vocal intensity, all the while creating an instant earworm with her Leonard Cohen-like cadence.
Taking inventory of the highs and lows of the album, it almost feels like there are two Joannes. While Gaga reflects and plays with a new direction, she’s tapped into both her strengths and weaknesses. It helps humanize the record, even if at some expense of the listener’s ear. Perhaps this is best exemplified by her not-quite-smash lead single “Perfect Illusion.” It’s the closest thing to classic Gaga style and makes awkward use of rock (Homme again) and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala’s signature synths. It doesn’t add up to much to remember – but as an act of imperfection it gives us a modular vantage to approach what we expect Gaga to be, where she was, is, and is headed next. This album is one that questions itself, making strides and missteps towards a high point for Gaga. It may be a necessary breather for her, but it could just as easily be the work we last remember from her. Only time will tell.