Lady Gaga wanted to make something Real.
More than a comeback, more than a career reset, and hell, more than a collection of songs, Joanne is something Real. That’s the sui generis of the project in Gaga’s discography. This is, as has been stated just about everywhere, a deliberate (and IMO, over) correction to the ARTPOP bust of 2013. ARTPOP was Gaga’s 3rd (4th if you’re counting The Fame Monster–which why wouldn’t you?) re-up on glammy club pop in 5 years without any time for artistic de-escalation, and it shows. The record runs on creative and songwriting fumes, and compensates by playing everything as loud and broad and “WEIRD” as possible. It’s an album overloaded with thundering drum machines and blaring synths that’s exhausting to listen to, and had to be exhausting to make.
Joanne wants to run just as far as ARTPOP in the opposite direction. Instead of loud, shallow, fakey pop music, this is her bid at an understated, nuanced album full of authentic music and Real emotion. The difference between the Real on the album and the realness of the Gaga’s Still Got It campaign that lead up to Joanne is that she didn’t have to be Lady Gaga to do that Sound of Music medley or jazz standards with Tony Bennett (although having a Lady Gaga caliber voice certainly helped); these are things anyone could have done. Meanwhile, Joanne is Real because of how performatively personal it is: the album’s named after Gaga’s poet/artist aunt who died at age 19 who she’s named after and always idolized, and several of the songs here deal with the fallout of Gaga’s broken engagement, although never too specifically. The authenticity of Joanne is incredibly apparent in its musical choices, as well. By and large, the album’s sound is influenced by indie rock, singer-songwriters, and country: three genres that place the highest value possible on authenticity. Her collaboration choices for the album telegraph this desire, as well, with folks like Florence Welch, Mark Ronson, Nashville songwriter Hillary Lindsey, Beck, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker all contributing.
And for all of the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into the album, it’s largely…just okay. Between the hemmed-in arrangements and anodyne production, Joanne strikes me as generally sort of flat, and even a little medicinal to listen to. The album rollout emphasized how much time Gaga et al. spent in the studio tweaking and retweaking, and listening to these songs, you get the feeling maybe a little too much time was spent there; everything sounds too workshopped. I’m sure that 2 versions ago, “A-YO” was a swaggering, stomp-n-clap single instead of making me realize how much I haven’t missed Glee, just as I’m positive that Kevin Parker’s laptop has a “Perfect Illusion” master where that key change actually elevates the song into the psych-disco rocker it wants to be (like this one). I get that ARTPOP went bust by swinging too hard into sloppy electropop, but Gaga and company didn’t have to make “Sinner’s Prayer” too measured for its own twangy, lounging good as punishment.
Gaga doesn’t help things, either. While Joanne‘s music and arrangements are too polished and low-energy, she tries so hard to sound as urgent and vocally raw as possible. She throws raspy runs, cracks, and breaks in like she’s applying for her own American Recordings series, and she completely overmatches the music instead of meeting it. You hear something like opener “Diamond Heart,” where it sounds like the band is playing their heart out in the next room, but the lead singer is wailing in your ear, and it just feels disorienting. Gaga, theater kid until she dies, has never been an understated singer, but she’s never pushed this hard, either. It’s not a constant distraction–in fact, it helps on the slower stuff here until the music doesn’t rise with her at the end–but hearing Gaga strain while effectively running in place flatters neither her nor the music, despite how Real these vocals get.
In addition to vocal mismatches and the odd death by a thousand edits, Joanne gets weirdly humorless at times. “A-YO” never seems as loose as it needs to be to look convincing, instead sounding more like the idea of fun than actual fun. And despite Gaga being high camp at its finest and country being a pretty campy genre itself, “John Wayne”‘ doesn’t go far enough with its yee-haw ruff man schtick; instead, it sounds exactly how you’d expect a song promoted with the Budweiser Dive Bar Tour to sound. I’m not sure what to make of the dancehall-lite “Dancin’ In Circles,” either. It could maybe be a single, but like ARTPOP‘s “Sexx Dreams” it already feels redundant: 7 years after “So Happy I Could Die” and in the same one where a song about getting dick so good you can’t walk straight the next day is a certified hit, is a song overtly about female masturbation really going to move the dial on its own?
Sometimes, Joanne really, really works though, especially near the end. “Come to Mama” is a singer-songwriter piano-basher in the vein of Elton John with a gleefully loud sax and simple hook that works by embracing its own cheesiness in the best way. It would have been unthinkable for Lady Gaga of all people to do an “everything’s gonna be alright” group singalong before Joanne, but she’s got great voice for this type of thing. Then there’s the touted duet with Florence Welch, “Hey Girl” that’s likely the album’s best song. The track dips its toes in lightly groovy 70s soft-rock with a warbling synth lopping through, but Gaga and Welch are what make it. It’s just two women with fantastic voices and chemistry sounding like they knocked this ode to friendship out in an afternoon. “Hey Girl” isn’t aspiring to be anything more than it is, and that’s what I like: it’s simple and fun and it reminds me of a few of my best friends. It feels real.
Lady Gaga’s always been a singer-songwriter underneath the outfits and the eccentricity, so an album like Joanne feels more inevitable than it does surprising. Stripped of her previous artifice, you’re left with is a record whose goals are admittedly staid, but they’re met: Joanne is an articulate, smartly composed album that ultimately feels unsatisfying because it relies too much on being musically fine so long as it’s authentic in an unchallenging way. If something as simple as the mixing were a little more robust, or if the songs were more immediate, Joanne as an argument for Real artistry would be more triumphant. As it is, I’m just reminded of the fact that we met Lady Gaga, not the Stefani Germanotta Band.