As a result of her breakout album in 2008, Lady Gaga rapidly rose to become the biggest pop sensation on the planet. The Fame and its consequent reissue contained numerous singles that were catchy, vibrant, and exciting to the point of being outright dangerous. As well as being international hits, they were candid social statements that were accessible enough for the mainstream, and smart enough to avoid critical refusal. However, following her 2013 album Artpop, general interest has been on a delicate decline, and Joanne is the result of Gaga’s consequent attempt to rebrand herself by stripping back the glaze and removing her quirks. It is astonishingly boring. It does nothing interesting, asserts nothing interesting, and I subsequently have nothing interesting to say about it. Instrumentals switch from generic soft rock to watered-down country pop, and Gaga never gets close to putting her stamp on either genre. “John Wayne” at least has some conviction, and benefits from funky riffs from Joshua Homme, but the only true success comes on “A-Yo”, a track where Gaga does Gaga. There isn’t a single song that touches the levels of “Bad Romance” or “Poker Face”, though I understand that was partially the intention. On paper, a stripped back Lady Gaga album sounds fairly appealing, but Joanne has revealed some vital blemishes. Lady Gaga’s inelegance has always been there, but when her quirkiness has been removed, the clumsiness is totally exposed. The first quarter of the album is decent, but the rest is some of the most stale pop I’ve experienced in a long, long time. Swing and a miss.4 10
Favourite tracks // A-Yo
To my mind, Lady Gaga has always been a better student of image—and the possibilities of image—than of music. She’s had her magic meetings of both, of course. There was a grotesque electricity to her breakout hits which was entirely her own. It’s often been imitated since, but seldom matched, including here. Precious little of what makes/made Gaga special is on show in Joanne. Outrageous, acutely self-aware, infuriatingly catchy pop anthems are nowhere to be seen; just pedestrian ones. Gaga’s customary wild flairs are reigned in and replaced by a left-field fondness for country ballads. The record’s opening few tracks are mostly fine, middling pop, and although lacking a special something, “A-Yo” and “John Wayne” sound like Gaga music. If you told me ahead of time that Lady Gaga was going to tackle country themes, her screaming about wanting to ride John Wayne(’s horse) is probably the sort of thing I’d have hoped for. That’s as good as it gets, though. The second half of Joanne slips into a string of impressively flat songs, most of which merge into one big country pop ditty. “Come to Mama” particularly epitomises the album’s bizarre lack of character. “Hey Girl”, which criminally wastes the talents of Florence Welch, listens like a poor (wo)man’s “Ebony and Ivory”. Everything feels undercooked. The hooks don’t hook, the soaring choruses barely get off the ground, and by the end I’m glad it’s all over. It’s strangely hollow. They’ve managed to sell this as ‘raw,’ so good for them. I suppose her Budweiser-sponsored Dive Bar Tour is also brave and genuine. Lady Gaga can reinvent herself however she sees fit, of course, and maybe I’m just not getting it, but Joanne is a really uninspiring iteration. Dull Southern Dame is no Thin White Duke, that’s for sure.5 10
Favourite tracks // John Wayne
Pop music often gets chastised, often by me, for how similar and bland it is. With Lady Gaga’s latest release, Joanne, I’m able to make those complaints while still yearning for more focus. Gaga has commented on a long term love for country musicians and Joanne certainly has strong country influences in patches, but each attempt through the tracklist feels fleeting and is often tinged by a need to wedge in the ‘dance track’ preset. This point is demonstrated particularly well in the first 10 minutes of the album, beginning with a more familiar sound and ending with an acoustic, echoing, country ode to Gaga’s late aunt Joanne in the eponymous track. Setting aside other, more general complaints, the opening trio experiments with the mix well, as does “John Wayne” to a certain extent. “Dancin’ In Circles” then clears the table of any atmosphere, theme, or cohesion, instead flirting with reggae, ska, and female masturbation—and the collaboration with Beck on the track makes it all the more curious. While I don’t hate it, or the M.I.A-like delivery, it marks a point of jarring disruption in the album as the turn of the millennia styled “Perfect Illusion” follows it, seemingly forgetting any focus on country music. Joanne continues along a similar path to the end, feeling less cohesive as it goes.
I have some more predictable gripes with the album. The instrumentals are patchy, with “Diamond Heart” and “John Wayne” (interestingly the tracks that Josh Homme had a hand in) at the top of the scale besides the simple acoustics of “Joanne”, while the painfully twee “Come To Mama” sits at the bottom, reminiscent of the music you might hear in your local homeware store. Right in the middle are tracks like “Hey Girl”, featuring Florence Welch, which hold back on instrumental flourish to let the duet shine, that is except for the synth that begins flying up and down the octaves seemingly without reason. Gaga’s vocals are more consistent, even with the experimentation with style, though the tracks with heavier country influences do the best job of showcasing her voice. I’ve definitely warmed a little to the album, but I can’t take a lot away from Joanne, nor can I join other reviews hailing it as a brave. I would have had a lot more praise and intrigue had Joanne been a fully committed take on a country album, even with some dance elements still left in the mix. As it is, there’s little to really hate or love here, leaving me largely unaffected.
Favourite tracks // Joanne
Dancin’ in Circles