Three years ago, Lady Gaga, one of the biggest pop artists of our time, experienced her first setback. Artpop, a dizzying concoction of her signature synthpop sound, electronica and the R&B music, saw the then-steady hitmaker appearing lost and confused. The neither-here-nor-there album was a critical and commercial disappointment, selling only 2.5 million units worldwide; a decent figure for any artist out there, but a disaster for someone who was so accustomed to huge album sales.
The period following Artpop was marked with the dramatic reconstruction of Gaga; she released a critically successful jazz album and starred in television shows. She never retreated completely from the spotlight, but the Lady Gaga that the world knew for her antics and eccentricities was slowly replaced by a much more demure and subdued persona. Madonna reinvented herself during Ray of Lights, but Gaga went one step further; she effectively abandoned her old self, building up a whole new image from scratch.
Joanne is a culmination of the reconstruction of Gaga. The sound here is raw and unadulterated, from the emotional outpouring in the title track to the spiritual moaning in “Angel Down”. Joanne’s title track tells the personal story of Gaga’s aunt Joanne who departed much too soon. “Every part of my aching heart, needs you more than the angels too”, she purred.
With Joanne, Gaga expressed her desire to free herself from the fame-centric persona that dominated the early years of her superstardom. On “Million Reasons”, the most emotional track on the album, Gaga murmured “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby, I just need one good one to stay”; which may suggest that she’s still in this for one good reason; the music perhaps. The piano-driven ballad, with its understated melody and pure soul is the strongest contender for a radio comeback for Gaga. In the haunting “Sinner’s Prayers”, Gaga sang about the shackles of her past. “I can carry you but not your ghosts”, she lamented. “Come to Mama” is sweet, with its chorus influenced by Motown giving it the timeless, evergreen sound.
While much of Joanne is made up of midtempo songs with strong soft-rock and country influences, the popstar Gaga is still present here. “A-YO” and “John Wayne” feature energetic arena choruses that hark back to Gaga’s “Born This Way” days. If Gaga is looking for a potential pop radio smash, “John Wayne” is a strong contender.
Joanne’s biggest disappointments are ironically in the tracks where Gaga seemed to put the most effort on. “Perfect Illusion”, co-written and co-produced with Mark Ronson (Uptown Funk) sounds like it still needs to be refined in the studio; the production is messy and distracting, and the chorus is painfully forgettable. “Hey Girl” featuring Florence Welsh sounds like a filler that could be best left in the bonus track edition.
With Joanne, Lady Gaga made the kind of music that she loved, but it remains to be seen if the general public will warm up to the new Gaga like they did to the eccentric, over-the-top “Judas” Gaga. One thing for sure is, Gaga has succeeded in making this album reflect who she truly is a person, and that, for an artiste, is a triumph.