Gaga returns with a better record than Artpop, but is that good enough?
, Lady Gaga
‘s third album, was mostly unforgivable, a wasted irredeemable presence in Lady Gaga’s history. It was so bizarre that “Applause” and her R. Kelly duet on “Do What U Want”
appeared to be the only thing salvageable to land safely on the ears of Top 40 radio. As a sign of redemption, Gaga — an artist that originally became the face of game-changing synthpop — went back to the bio lab and tried on newer outfits, from her jazz exercises with Tony Bennett (see Cheek to Cheek
) to stunning Broadway overtures while playing tribute to Julie Andrews at the Oscars. All of these sidebars seem riveting when considering her latest musical expedition, Jolene
Inside the eleven-track collection, produced by in-demand hit machine Mark Ronson and yet another set of producers (BloodPop, Josh Homme, Jeff Bhasker), Gaga is yet again journeying into new terrain. This time around, she makes her bed in a set that feels Nashvillian to the core. Songs like “Million Reasons” and the “Angel Down,” a somber tribute to the slain Trayvon Martin, all bear a rustic country-pop quality to it, as if she’s now drifting into a singer-songwriter haze. And even when she tries to break free from the Nashville country stronghold, it doesn’t quite let loose. For instance, “A-Yo” plays like a “Footloose” riddled with whirly fiddles and wussy guitars, “Sinner’s Prayer” walks like an anthem to a Quentin Tarantino western. And “John Wayne” still has that backwoods country scent even as it sashays with Franz Ferdinand disco.
Ronson, who managed to put Motown back on the charts via Amy Winehouse and kicked ass with his recent solo album Uptown Special, is also stumbling on a new world — Jolene is the most Ronson has played with music with a twang. He does reprise some of his funkier aspirations with Gaga while paying homage to the synth sonics of Prince on the Florence Welch-guested “Hey Girl,” but because of the album’s commitment to the singer-songwriter palette, the song flows more like a spacey “Bennie and the Jets.” Ironically all this still sounds good on paper, but one good listen will leave listeners begging for more. The lyrics and chorus inside are quite lackluster.
The mood of the album may possibly be the most objective to Gaga party purists. This is a more personal collection than before, committing Gaga’s feelings and life story on wax. On the title track, Gaga sings about her late aunt Joanne who died when Gaga was only nineteen. “Take my hand, stay Joanne,” Gaga sings in the first person. “Heaven’s not ready for you/Every part of my aching not heart needs you more than the Angels do.” That heartache of losing a loved one, fighting with fate, dropped on a melancholic folk gem, comes so soon on the album. Further into the disc, “Million Reasons,” co-penned by “Jesus Take the Wheel” writer Hillary Lindsey, is heard and probably stands out as the biggest and mightiest ballad Gaga has ever scored. Inside the lyrics, she’s opening up about the brutal goodbye with her ex: “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away/But baby, I just need one good one to stay.” But heartache is all around, from the opening track “Diamond Heart” (“Some asshole broke me in/Wrecked all my innocence”) to the bitter end, where Trayvon Martin is memorialized. This is why Joanne will be most definitely be canonized as Gaga’s most intimate project to date.
Still, the music aboard Joanne is also a bit tepid for Gaga. Instead of pushing and breaking down barriers, she finds a world of comfort in the now-trending genre of country. And yes, she finds a way to infuse her brand of pop into it, although more mundane than usual, and tosses in a little rock, funk and soul also, but this isn’t exactly a quintessential Gaga record, not when it comes to sound. And that may very well be the biggest upset about the album. It’s fair and good. It has its glimmers of grandeur, like the bold rock-pop sludge and off-kilter organization of the chorus on “Diamond Heart” and the Motown/Pat Benatar mashup of “Perfect Illusion.” It’s also easier to digest than Artpop, but being easy shouldn’t be associated with a Gaga record. Lay aside all the brutal emotion of the record for a second; Jolene just sounds a little too easy for a towering figure in pop like Gaga. If she is doing all of this ADHD genre hopping just to shut down the critics who constantly like to wage a comparison war with her and Madonna, then she really needs to reevaluate her life choices. Jolene is passable, bit it’s not exactly what we really wanted from her.