Review: Joanne Shows Ambition, But Gaga’s Efforts Fall Short

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Note: My music reviews will always be “late.” It is my belief that albums should be listened to in different moods, settings, and after extended breaks, all while conditioning yourself to accept what you were given as opposed to what you wanted. Only then can you give a legitimate and honest critique of the material.

Oh, the infamous Lady Gaga. I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised myself. If you would have told me six years ago that I would eventually find myself writing a review for a Lady Gaga record, I would have laughed in your face, and yet here we are. Why the change of heart? Well, that would probably come from the changes both Gaga and I have made over the years. I’ve become more willing to try new things and she’s, apparently, gained a willingness to abandon the triumphant Pop sound that originally put her on the road towards fame and popularity.

When news broke last year that Gaga was gearing up to release a new record, part of me was interested out of curiosity, but this curiosity was really piqued when I heard about her goals and ambitions for the project. On her fifth studio album, it was said that Gaga would be making an album dedicated to her late aunt; one that would have a more personal touch, with influences of Folk music and other genres I wouldn’t typically associate with a Gaga album. For me, this sounded incredibly promising. After all, I never had a problem with Gaga as a vocalist, I just always found her musical output to be a lot of flare with very little substance.

Then Joanne came out and, well, the album that was being sold to me wasn’t exactly the album that was released to the public. The Folk influences were there, sure, as were the personal ballads, but beneath all that, lingering in between the cracks, was still the Lady Gaga that came onto the scene when I was in high school. Still vibrant, still rambunctious, still a little all over the place. Right out of the gate, I knew I liked this album more than I had any of her previous material, but she still failed to fully sell me on the Gaga brand, which was a little disappointing during my initial listens.

Prior to the album’s release, Joanne was supported by two lead singles, “Perfect Illusion” and “A-Yo,” both of which I refused to listen to before I heard the album in its entirety, and I’m glad I did, as they aren’t exactly the best examples of Joanne‘s core sound. What I find interesting, however, is just how often Gaga chose to abandon this rootsy, Western-influenced sound that, to me, felt like the album’s main selling point. The same sound, mind you, that really brought me in as a listen, someone who’s never been a fan of her work in the past.

The record opens with “Diamond Heart,” which kicks things off with this really irresistible guitar melody. Obviously taking a lot of influence from her personal life on here, the lyrics on this track are vivid, with a soaring chorus, and an even more bombastic bridge towards the end of the song that makes you want to shout the lyrics as if you were Gaga herself. It’s a very strong opener and one of the many instances on Joanne where I found myself enjoying the song more and more over the course of my listening experience.

Unfortunately, Gaga can’t seem to keep the momentum going, as the previously mentioned “A-Yo” comes next, a Country Pop song that reminds me a little of Shania Twain. While the production on this song is fun and bouncy, the main refrain of “A-Yo, A-Yo, we smokin’ ‘em all” gets really annoying really fast, and in my opinion, this track feels a little more bland and safe compared to majority of the material surrounding it. What’s more irritating, however, is this trend continues throughout the entirety of Joanne.

For example, the title song comes next, which is her first real attempt at a grassroots Folk tune, and it goes over really well. Instrumentally, the track is very subtle, offering nothing more than an acoustic guitar, but Gaga easily takes the song where it needs to go, as the stripped back production gives her some room to shine. Her vocals are a little rough in the mix, but this only adds a layer of vulnerability to the performance. Unfortunately, “Joanne” is subsequently followed by “John Wayne” and “Dancin’ in Circles,” which are two of my least favorite cuts on the record.

“John Wayne” is arguably the most underwritten song on Joanne, with its only redeeming quality being these weird distorted vocals placed throughout the chorus, which helped give the otherwise bland tune some character. “Dancin’ in Circles,” on the other hand, shouldn’t have been on the record at all, as Gaga approaches the topic of masturbation with the subtlety of a plane crash. While I think the song has a strong groove, there’s no reason the lyrics “I lay around, touch myself to pass the time” should be on an album dedicated to her deceased aunt.

“Perfect Illusion” follows that cringe-fest and is an odd moment on the record for me personally. Because this is probably the biggest departure from Joanne‘s main sound, and while it tends to stick out in the track list as a result of this, it still manages to be one of my favorite cuts because it is So. Damn. Good. The production is grandiose and adrenaline inducing, it’s the album’s biggest ear-worm, and the hook sounds like something Madonna would have sung in her prime. So while I would normally hate a song for not sticking with an album’s sonic theme, I just can’t here.

Plus, it’s hard to hate the song too much when Gaga has, at this point, failed to show any semblance of consistency in the tracks she’s presented us with, an issue that persists on the remainder of the record. What makes this more egregious, however, is some of these back-end cuts have great ideas, but they fall short due to shoddy execution, which only makes them more frustrating. For example, “Come to Mama” and “Hey Girl”–songs that discuss things like universal love and women empowering other women.

“Come to Mama’s” biggest crime is it’s just so ridiculously bouncy and cheerful, to the point where it sounds fabricated and plastic. Every time I listen to it, all I can visualize is some bright, unrealistically happy scene in a Pixar or DreamWorks film. “Hey Girl,” on the other hand, is more a victim of bringing on the wrong guest. Both Gaga and Florence Welch give strong performances, but the problem is Florence has a very commanding voice, so she dominates the mix until it no longer feels like the track even belongs on Gaga’s record.

Thankfully, these songs are preceded by “Million Reasons” and “Sinner’s Prayer,” both highlights, and the entire album closes off with “Angel Down,” one of the most powerful tunes on the record. Throughout the length of the song, there are these distorted sounds playing in the background, and the way they play off of the piano help create a very strong atmosphere, one that is enhanced by Gaga’s absolutely chilling performance. I guarantee you’ll have goosebumps by the time the chorus comes back around after the second verse.

That’s the thing with Joanne, though: its highs are very high and its lows are very low. At its best, this album allows Lady Gaga to show her talents as a vocalist. In a way, she was the album’s strongest and most vibrant instrument, because a lot of these very skeletal instrumentals give her room to flex her vocal abilities, which is something I can appreciate as a listener. However, the record’s biggest setback is its inconsistency, which often leaves the album feeling really scatterbrained.

There’s a lot of strong material on here, but it seems like each great track or idea is complimented by one that is bland, ill-conceived, or just flat-out annoying, which makes for a frustrating listen. So, no, Lady Gaga didn’t come out with some mind-blowing album, but she still manage to create a handful of tunes that I really enjoyed, perhaps even loved, and had she honed in on this rootsy sound she kept toying with, it’s clear she could have created something really strong and important, not only within her discography, but within the current Pop landscape. This in and of itself shows that, even at its worst, the material on Joanne is some of her most compelling work to date.

Favorite Songs: “Diamond Heart,” “Joanne,” “Perfect Illusion,” “Sinner’s Prayer” & “Angel Down”

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2 thoughts on “Review: Joanne Shows Ambition, But Gaga’s Efforts Fall Short

    • Thanks, Oliver! Don’t get me wrong, I find “Dancin’ in Circles” funny, as well, but I think the absurdity of the song is what makes me laugh, which I can only assume wasn’t really Gaga’s goal. Like “Come to Mama” and “Hey Girl” later in the track list, I feel a song like “Dancin’ in Circles” is interesting in concept, as female sexuality, or at least a female’s exploration of her body, isn’t something you tend to hear about on record, but personally, I think this may have been the wrong album to explore that concept.

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