Lady Gaga's Chromatica offers a glitter-dusted escape from strange times
From dance-pop she came, and to dance-pop she shall return. Over some dozen years in the public eye and nearly as many personae, Stefani Joanne Germanotta has continually, notoriously tweaked the idea of what it means to be Lady Gaga — an ever-shifting portrait of the artist as meat dress and movie star, jazz baby and torch singer, social media warrior and self-actualization queen.
But it’s the seeds of musical DNA planted on 2008’s The Fame that bear the most fruit on Chromatica, an album also deeply rooted in the euphoric, synth-soaked uplift of ‘80s and ‘90s club culture. Nearly every one of its 13 tracks reaches for a kind of delirious excess: thunderous hard candy bangers designed to press on the brain’s pleasure centers until they submit, again and again, to the replay button.
The record opens on a swell of cinematic strings; a brief, swirling interlude before strobe lights descend on the skittering wonderland anthem “Alice” and the now-omnipresent wallop of lead single “Stupid Love” and its pony-stomping follow-up, the sticky Ariana Grande duet “Rain on Me.” “Free Woman” feels almost subdued in comparison, a midtempo gospel groove spun from a spare keyboard line.
Not all is straight-up ecstasy: the clipped refrain on “911” — “my biggest enemy is me” — belies its playful, Daft Punk-ish robot funk with darker allusions to manic moods and pharmaceuticals; “Fun Tonight” calls out a lover who enjoys the spotlight too much, maybe more than the love itself.
Because it’s Lady Gaga, there is also (why not?) a built-in mythology: Chromatica as not just an album but its own planet; a shiny pink space rock populated by kindness punks, or something. But if the album’s visuals offer a vision of some utopian future far from Earth and its current harsh realities, the sound itself — constructed by a cavalcade of hitmakers and industrious Swedes that includes Max Martin, Axwell, and BloodPop — feels deliberately retro: a sort of giddy survey course in the last half-century or so of disco evolution. (Though perception rests, of course, almost entirely in the ear of the beholder; her youngest listeners may find its climbing synths and dance-floor callbacks entirely new.)
The rare times when things do get legitimately weird can actually be the most rewarding: the simmering bass line and swallowed yelps of “Sour Candy”; a throbbing bilingual duet with K-pop stars BLACKPINK; and “Sine From Above,” which finds Sir Elton John bringing a sort of cracked godfather gravitas to its multilayered mashup of Casio thump, plucked strings, and shuddering drum 'n' bass.
Lyrically, things tend to stay in familiar lanes — joy, self-esteem, love that cuts like a knife but also lifts like a thousand doves — and sometimes submit to pure silliness. “Babylon” wants to “party like it’s B.C./with a pretty 16th-century style,” which sounds like a history teacher's nightmare; then again, this is same Lady who takes care to note in an interstitial reflection, “When I was younger, I was at some point born,” before waxing philosophical about IQ and EQ and alternate realities. They’re just Gaga-isms; you can take or leave them.
It’s not hard to imagine how Chromatica might have landed in a pre-quarantine world, as it was intended to: a summer of giddy ubiquity at circuit parties and spin classes, Pride floats and beach-day caravans. That it arrives instead in a moment that can only be shared virtually is undoubtedly strange for both its creator and the fans who awaited its delayed release from April with countdown clocks as finely calibrated as Richter scales. But like the best pop music is meant to, the album transcends that, too: an audacious, glitter-dusted promise of escape from the sad, the bad, and the ordinary, delivered at 120 BPMs. A–