Seven years after entering spotlight, Lady Gaga has released her fourth full-length solo album, Joanne, beginning a new era of her musicianship. Following years of controversy over music videos, religious imagery in her lyrics, and bold fashion choices like the infamous meat dress, this era is a shift, and that’s immediately evident from the simplistic album cover consisting of soft pastel colors.
Joanne is still fundamentally a pop album, but it’s Gaga’s first solo album to drastically move away from the electronic-pop style that’s been so successful (though Cheek To Cheek, her collaboration with Tony Bennett, was her first step toward a different direction). This may sound disappointing at its base to some fans, but Gaga handles the transition smoothly and has created something refreshing and interesting in her newest album. The stripped-down style doesn’t have the same danceable quality as some of her previous hits, but it brings its own value to the table.
The album kicks off with “Diamond Heart,” which is an effective bridge between the old Gaga and the new. Soft synthesizer backs the vocals during the verses, and as they bridge into the chorus, electric guitar backed by electronic beats build while Gaga sings out, “Young, wild American / C’mon, baby / Do you have a girlfriend?” It’s not something you’re likely to be dancing to at a club, but it’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a previous Lady Gaga album, and it gives Joanne an energetic start. “A-Yo” builds upon that energy, with a jazzy and country-esque sound driven by guitar and backed by saxophone and trumpet.
From here, the album begins to step down a bit in energy. Joanne contains three songs that I’d label “ballads,” a notable shift given that previous solo Lady Gaga albums have only had a single ballad (something that has always disappointed me, since her ballads are some of my favorite tracks by her, as I discussed recently). In the album’s title track, soft acoustic guitar backs Gaga’s repeated pleas toward Joanne (her deceased aunt), asking her, “Where do you think you’re going?” In “Million Reasons,” she struggles with relationship that’s on the rocks, putting some real power into her voice as she sadly croons over piano and guitar. The final ballad, “Angel Down,” concludes the standard edition of Joanne. A questioning number with a mournful quality reminiscent of a funeral, it ends the album on a poignant note as Gaga sings over piano and a Mellotron.
The album’s other offerings include the catchy, rocking lead single “Perfect Illusion,” the ode to female solidarity in “Hey Girl” (on which Gaga is accompanied in vocals by Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence & The Machine), the western-sounding love song “Sinner’s Prayer,” and the jazzy “Come To Mama,” which encourages positivity. Some of the songs are more compelling than others, and certainly your mileage may vary depending on what type of music you prefer, given that the album alternates between pop, jazz, and a bit of a country twinge, but Joanne brings a compelling selection of songs of varying moods.
Not every song on the album has Gaga at her best. The country-like “John Wayne” builds up some nice momentum into the pre-chorus, but then falls flat in the chorus itself and feels kind of stagnant overall. “Dancin’ In Circles” is catchy, but walks a weird line in having compelling lyrics that don’t entirely match with the timbre of the song. Neither are completely unenjoyable, but Joanne has better songs.
However, Joanne’s largest drawback is that even when it’s good, it lacks the poignance and oomph of her previous work. The fact that the instrumentals take a bit of a backseat on Joanne compared to previous works makes for a perfect opportunity for Gaga to show off her amazing voice, but she rarely does so, and even when she does on tracks like “Million Reasons,” “Perfect Illusion,” and “Diamond Heart,” it never reaches the same level of powerful, heart-rending emotion that Gaga did on songs like The Fame Monster’s “Speechless” and ARTPOP’s “Dope,” or even of some of her radio hits like “Bad Romance.” Not every song on the album needs to reach an emotional extreme, but it’s disappointing that, among Joanne’s 11 tracks, none of them really do.
There is a deluxe version of Joanne available, bringing the track total up to 14 with two brand-new tracks and a “Work Tape” version of “Angel Down,” which is essentially a demo. “Grigio Girls” and “Just Another Day” are both fun, upbeat numbers, with the latter being a carefree, jazzy song that’s one of the standouts among all of the tracks of Joanne. The demo of “Angel Down” is interesting, stripping the already-minimalist song down to only raw audio of piano and Gaga’s vocals. It’s arguably the one song on the album that borders upon the powerful vocals included on her previous albums (even if it does so in an unrefined fashion), which gives the song a power that the studio version lacks. You’ll still have an enjoyable listening experience if you go with the standard release, but if you’re getting the album anyway, it’s definitely worth shelling out the extra few dollars for the deluxe version.
Joanne is an interesting new step for Gaga, and it’s one I’m glad to see her take. Her previous endeavors have occasionally sounded forced and like she was trying too hard, particularly some of her offshoots on Born This Way, and that’s not the case here. However, I hope that she expands upon her new sound going into the future and gives it the compelling energy she brought to the table with her previous work. Joanne is a good first step in proving that she doesn’t need audio theatrics to make an entire album of good music, and I’m anxious to see her take it further.