Monday, October 24, 2016

album review: 'joanne' by lady gaga

I remember when it seemed like for a few brief years, Lady Gaga was the biggest person in pop. She might not have had the most hits or the most critical acclaim, but she sparked conversation by her very presence and how 'weird' and crazy she was.

And here's the thing: she really wasn't all that crazy, even with all the ridiculous rhetoric and outfits. I'm going to make a comparison that at first thought might not seem to make any sense: Lady Gaga reminds me a lot of Eric Church, the maverick country artist who remained within the mainstream but in recent years also built something of a reputation on being 'weird' that's proved hit-and-miss. And again, at least to me it doesn't seem that weird or strange for either of them, mostly because I get their type: they're music nerds, the type of people who study and examine music with an obsessive intensity that tends to alienate the mainstream. Both worked insanely hard at their craft, both wanted to be larger than life and worshiped icons like Springsteen who could pull it off, both were unafraid to cross and blend genres in ways that could be famously messy but nearly always unique, and at their very worst, both made a lot of music that was self-referential to the point of disappearing up their own ass. For Eric Church it was his 2014 record The Outsiders, but for as much as I dislike that album, it wasn't all self-focused myth-making, and he alleviated a lot of that sting by following it with Mr. Misunderstood a year later.

Gaga, on the other hand, made ARTPOP. And look, I don't hate that record nearly as much as some people do - all of her work has been messy, with The Fame Monster being her most consistently strong record, but there have always been some stunning songs along the way. But ARTPOP remains her weakest record, for in trying to commercialize the art aesthetic without capturing the populism or avant-garde experimentation that could have given the album flair, it wound up trying to make more of a statement with attitude than content, and it didn't really get all the way there, not helped by hooks and writing that were far from her best. 

And so ARTPOP disappeared down the collective memory hole of pop fans, Lady Gaga went on to American Horror Story and an album of covers with Tony Bennett and wrote a song that should have won her an Oscar, and now she's finally back with Joanne. From what I had heard of the singles and writing, I was getting the impression this could very well be her Mr. Misunderstood, a tighter refocus on her core strengths as a tremendous performer and artist in her own right. And believe me, folks, I wanted this to be good: I didn't love 'Perfect Illusion' or 'Million Reasons' but 2016 in mainstream pop has sucked so badly that I had to hope Lady Gaga would pull something powerful together, right?

I really want to like this more than I do - because I get this record. I understand the unstable and self-referential balancing act that Joanne is trying, another messy exercise in genre-bending where Gaga is both delving inwards into broken relationships and her famously complicated approach to pop music itself. But this is yet another case where intent is not matching execution, specifically in the music itself, holding back a record that could very well have been great just being mostly passable at the end of the day, a record that wants to be personal and heartfelt but is held back on a fundamental level.

So before we get to that, it's important to start with the element that works the most: Gaga herself. She's always been one hell of a performer, and main producer Mark Ronson is smart enough to give her raw but theatrical vocals all the room in the world to showcase one hell of a performance. She's emotive, she owns the stage consistently, and her strident delivery cuts through pretty much every filter set up to augment her presence. She's rarely sounded better, even on the moments that call back to her early work like 'Dancin' In Circles' where she opts for her more restrained delivery. The one place where I feel the vocal lines could have been expanded comes in the duet with Florence Welch 'Hey Girl', in that while they have good interplay they don't really harmonize as much as you'd hope... and sure, they're both powerhouse singers, but on a song all about female camaraderie both inside and outside pop music, you'd think that'd be an automatic part of the arrangement.

And this takes us immediately into the big open question about this record, namely what the hell Gaga is trying to say with it. And there are two ways you can really analyze this album: play it straight; or frame the conversation as Gaga's relationship with pop music itself, which the more I dug into songs like 'Perfect Illusion' and 'Diamond Heart' and 'Million Reasons' did seem to hold some water. And any relationship she has with the genre seems rocky indeed - rejected, angry, perhaps even on its deathbed as she finds the increasingly hollow and slick direction all the more of an illusion, lacking the depth in which she hoped to either give it or find within. That's one of the reasons 'Million Reasons' finally grew on me a fair bit more and is probably the best song on the album: not just searching for the one thing she could use to stay in her dying relationship, but within pop itself. Hell, that sense of disillusionment runs through all the writing on the record, as Gaga doesn't shy away from admitting her own flaws on tracks like 'Sinner's Prayer' but still aspires to unite people, from the borderline hippie iconography of 'Come To Mama' to the on-the-nose union across rivalries of 'Hey Girl', left all the more desperate when she looks outside to the real world on 'Angel Down', inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent deaths of black youth, too often by police and a system that's abandoned them. 

But here's where we get towards some tricky territory: I'm not sure the implied double meanings of many of these tracks works to Gaga's advantage, mostly because it adds layers of performance and stagecraft that don't really need to be there. This becomes a glaring issue in the production, but even on a conceptual level with the writing it can hurt songs that otherwise demand that sort of authenticity. I really wanted to like 'John Wayne' for trying for a ragged, country-rock-esque, but note that Gaga's not referencing country music in that track so much as country archetypes - and sure, when Kesha did this four years ago with 'Gold Trans AM' it was similar, but the wild sleaze felt authentic and earned, whereas with Gaga it felt a little like a pose, more artificial. It's one reason why I don't think Josh Tillman's writing on 'Sinner's Prayer' and 'Come To Mama' translated all that well beyond melodic composition - not only is it not as lush as the stuff he made under Father John Misty, but it's also also just as plainly built on artifice, normally the sort that he'd subvert with humour or acerbic earnestness - none of which Gaga even tries.

But really, that's nitpicking around the edges: the real issues come in the production. I'll say it: if Gaga wanted this material to feel less staged or have more rock muscle, she should not have hired Mark Ronson to handle production, because while the bass melodies tend to come through well, they're about the only melodies that consistently work across this album, and are rarely mixed to the volume to adequately support Gaga's tremendous vocals. And I don't get the logic of this: you get Josh Homme to throw real sizzling guitar tones across this album, but on songs from 'Diamond Heart' to 'Perfect Illusion' he's stuck often pushing his tones through a thick muffling that rarely lets a full depth of texture and bite roar through? Forget knee-capping a lot of your rock edge, you end up hurting a lot of the melody driving your hooks beyond just the vocal line, and wind up with just another version of percussion over melody, although minus all the reverb that'd otherwise blend it together. And throw in the saxophones that show up on 'A-YO' and 'Come To Mama' especially and it feels all the more like we're getting a Broadway version of what this record could be: sanitized and lacking more instrumental flavour beyond huge vocals. And what's all the more frustrating is that you can tell a lot of it is there and just isn't coming through: the surf rock guitar lick that opens 'Sinner's Prayer' is great, the stripped back acoustics on the title track and 'Million Reasons' are both solid with some beautifully raw embellishments... but it's not blended into a cohesive sound that could match or flatter Gaga's voice. And since it's a Lady Gaga record, we get the instrumental tones that just completely misfire for me, from the blaring synths on the outro of 'A-YO' to the weedy guitar pickup and middle-eastern scales on 'Dancin' In Circles' that only barely works with the content about female masturbation, to those ugly oily elements on 'Hey Girl' that seem to be trying for a 'Bennie & The Jets' composition and doesn't flatter anything, to the key change on 'Perfect Illusion' that should have hit way more strongly than it did.

Look, as I said before i really want to like this album more than I do, because Gaga is doing a lot right with this. Her vocals are strong, her writing on a technical level is probably better than it's ever been, and there's about as much thematic cohesion as you'd expect for this sort of pop record. But for as much tension as Lady Gaga has with pop music, you'd think that her alternatives would be better blended into the mix or refined to at least the level of her contemporaries, instead of sounding like too many disparate fragments screaming to be yanked together. On a compositional level this record clicks, and I can definitely see certain songs like 'Diamond Heart', 'Million Reasons', 'Sinner's Prayer' or even 'John Wayne' growing me, but beyond that it's a very strong 6/10 and only a recommendation for fans. Is she still better than most of mainstream pop in 2016? Absolutely - but sadly that's more an indictment on 2016's lack of quality than Gaga's music itself, and while the ingredients were here, they just didn't stick for me. Sorry.

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