Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. No quip today, just appreciate that cover art.
It’s here. All of Lady Gaga’s goodwill endeavors since ARTPOP stalled in 2013–recording and touring trad pop standards with Tony Bennett, the Sound of Music medley, singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, acting gigs, recording a critically acclaimed, socially conscious ballad–every part of the Gaga’s Still Got It Campaign, has been building toward this; her first reentry into the pop game she once ruled and made in her own, weird image. Gaga’s been dropping hints and updates from the studio leading up to “Perfect Illusion,” and with the fall pop release schedule essentially open to whoever has the first great track, there’s no better time than now for her to launch her comeback. So let’s see how this goes.
Before we get started, go ahead and listen to the track. Seriously, go ahead. The single art up there links to the song. I can wait.
Okay, so that first listen was pretty underwhelming. No matter where you eventually land on “Perfect Illusion,” the consensus is that it doesn’t wow on the first spin, that you have to give it time. It reminds me of how we perceived “Work”, where a key part of understanding the song was realizing it wasn’t designed to hit you in the same way as Rihanna’s previous work. But that was pretty easy to do with “Work” once you considered that “Rude Boy,” “You Da One,” and “What’s My Name?” all exist. But “Perfect Illusion” doesn’t have an easy comparison point in Gaga’s discography. For those first few seconds filled with alarm sirens and sun-fried hard rock guitar, you think the track’s going to be a campy Born This Way throwback rocker, but the major features here are four to the floor drums and vamping keyboards. And while those aren’t new weapons in the Gaga arsenal, the restraint is.
The biggest difference between “Perfect Illusion” and the rest of Lady Gaga’s work is in what the production is trying to do. From “Just Dance” all the way up to “G.U.Y.” her beats have been these stadium sized club jams with massive, digitized drum tracks and blown out synths that tried and (mostly at first and less so over time) succeeded at invoking a listener response through sheer size and rush. The thrill wore off on ARTPOP because Gaga’s songcraft abilities seemed to more or less leave her; where her songs had always been big, they always knew how to best deploy their size to sweep you off your feet, even when they went from “huge” to “mondo freaking huge” (I’m think of “The Edge of Glory” in particular here). Her production specialty was “barnburner.”
Meanwhile, “Perfect Illusion” has a beat that’s honest to God nuanced. It’s not one bent on world domination, but a track that includes subtle shifts and extra flourishes, like the twinkling synth that fades in on the chorus. Lady Gaga coproduced and cowrote “Perfect Illusion” with Mark Ronson and Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker (BloodPop coproduced as well), and it sounds like a Gaga/Ronson/Tame collaboration instrumentally. You’ve got Gaga’s dance pop base with Ronson style tastefulness and synth and drum textures straight out of “Let It Happen.” It’s maybe a little too compact at a 3 minute run time for how much it wants to do, and the drum sound is weirdly flunky, but that campiest of camp key change is a “Holy shit” moment musically. There’s an HQ version of just the beat that’s a must-listen.
Which is why it’s rough to pair “Perfect Illusion”‘s tailored beat with what has to be Gaga’s capital R Rawest vocal take ever. One of the Gaga’s Still Got It campaign through lines was a call for authenticity and vocal talent (based on the preliminary look for this new record and the emphasis on ~realness~ this album could be “Gaga Goes Rockist” move), and accordingly, she consciously sings the shit out of “Perfect Illusion.” On the hook–which, by the way, 77% of this song is its hook on repeat–she belts “IT WASN’T LAAAV, IT WASN’T LAAAAV, IT WAS A PERFECT ILLUSION” complete with near voice breaks and sounding like she’s at the top of her range. It wows at that first chorus thirty seconds in, but feels less earned as the song goes because there’s never any tension or build up to a release. Even after the key change, which is a genuinely cool moment, my enthusiasm dissipates because “Perfect Illusion” doesn’t go anywhere with the momentum.
Your mileage may vary as to if you find “Perfect Illusion” to be a slowburner or a fizzle. The most popular argument espoused on YouTube and Twitter (sidenote: remember Gaga’s Little Monsters? They’re back!) is that it takes a few listens for “Perfect Illusion” to take off, but so far I’m not hearing it; a dozen plays in, and this still just sounds like a really cool demo. Gaga going this hard over this production does neither any favors since she sounds too forced and the beat sounds too plodding. I’m not saying it’s bad, but if she pulled back a little or if the beat leaned into those changes and matched her, this would be an unqualified success instead of a tepid one. As is, this is a fine song with the projections of a great song. The illusions of one, if you would.