If Lady Gaga entered pop stardom with the subtlety of a disco ball, her latest record proves that she’s growing into something less glittering but no less colorful. Gaga’s fifth studio album, Joanne, is her most mature yet, named for her late aunt whose frequent appearance in lyrical shout-outs adds a rich, thematic throughline about family. There’s still an artist beneath the “artist,” but here Gaga swaps the cosmos for beer cans and the dance lights for dive bars to show raw, unrefined ambition. Joanne is surprising, wandering, and, yes, inexplicable — which is to say, it’s Gaga — and with it comes an infectiousness that was introduced in 2014’s Cheek to Cheek but is solidified here: When Gaga is having fun, we all are.
Joanne feels freeing and revitalizing but most impressively, it serves as a reminder that Gaga’s voice remains singular and distinguishable, even against a new sonic palette. Roaring louder than ever against piano and guitar, her vampy vocals are powerful as ever, even when she’s testing the limits of acceptable twang. Consider “Sinner’s Prayer” as the record’s principal example of the clashing of worlds between country’s down-home mellowness and Gaga’s celestial plane; it’s those diverse ideas that make Joanne such a delight.
But cohesively, Joanne is only a half-loaded gun. To characterize it as “a country album” is folly, although the tracks that tilt loosely into Nashville timbre are, in fact, the album’s best. Gaga is in joyous form on “A-YO,” the album’s best, boot-tapping, albeit gleefully nonsensical bop; “Sinner’s Prayer,” a sprightly torch song about heartbreak that makes the finest use of country’s plucky acoustic strings; and the beautiful “Joanne,” Gaga’s most disarming and original ballad in years. “Come To Mama,” a sax-heavy ode to the doo-wop and soul ballads of the 1950s and ‘60s, skews about as southern as a last call at 2 a.m., but that’s when it becomes clear that Joanne isn’t wholly a blind leap into the genre.
By that token, certain songs are woefully out of place, like the inexplicable “Hey Girl,” an empowerment duet with Florence Welch that far underserves both artists’ abilities, and the album’s first single “Perfect Illusion,” which holds the superlative for being the record’s least inspired and representative. The inconsistent tracklist also means messages like the socially conscious (and no less beautiful) “Angel Down” are lost somewhere between the manic hoedown hollers of “John Wayne” and the ur-Gaga anthem “Dancin’ In Circles.”
Still, Joanne is a curious bauble, demonstrating that although Gaga’s power to shock has waned, her artistry continues to evolve in exceptional ways. From the niche passion of a duets album with Tony Bennett to a wild leap into American Horror Story to the folksy enterprise du jour, Gaga’s choices have been so laser-focused, they almost seem reckless. That’s what makes Joanne such a fun experiment. Her personality as pop’s reigning eccentric is as clear here as her scholarly interest in the nuts and bolts of genre. Joanne is not as brazen and bold as it could have been, but it’s merely a temporary beat in the timeline of an artist who’s earned the right to stray down a path, be it a disco-lit runway or a dusty road. She’ll return to straight pop, no doubt, but she’s reserved the right to take a detour. With Lady Gaga, it’s never a question of “why,” but “why not?”
A playful, funky, divey party tune that still betrays a few of Gaga’s signature quirks.
Gaga’s beguilingly affecting acoustic tribute to her late aunt—or any loved one whom heaven is not ready for just yet.