Artistically speaking, Artpop had been Lady Gaga’s best solo album to date. Yet, Joanne managed to surpass Artpop in almost every way conceivable. Artpop’s hardest struggle was the one its author placed upon it: it was too self-conscious of wanting to be something great. Gaga was too focused on creating an aesthetic manifesto she forgot art is created in the detail, not in the overall idea; by not letting each song mature into itself, she created an album that was too ambitious for its own good.
I personally liked Artpop, I think it was a fun and enjoyable LP, definitely better than most of the mainstream albums of 2013. However, the idea of it was always better than the actual thing. I remember watching an interview of Gaga saying that she wanted to invert the Pop Art process, she wanted to put the art into the soup can, instead of the soup can onto the canvas, and when I heard that, I went and bought the album.
Yes, the idea was intriguing, but there was just something lacking artistically in the album. The discourses she tackled had been handled before, and in much better ways; the sounds were interesting, but nothing too revolutionary; the lyrics were generally underwritten and the ideas undercooked. It had still great songs (Dope, Gypsy, Sexxx Dreams, Aura and G.U.Y. come to mind), but it was too all over the place to become the aesthetic manifesto it wanted to be.
And now, three years later, Gaga comes with Joanne, which is without a doubt her best album to date. Here, she does to pop what was done recently by Carly Rae Jepsen did with Emotion, what Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar did to R&B with Lemonade and To Pimp A Butterfly (respectively), or what Lana del Rey did to indie-pop with Honeymoon; and that is to use both old and new music and styles of narrative.
Using pop as the base for all of her songs, she takes upon the task of infusing styles in almost every song. It is inevitable to find Gaga’s nostalgia and search for old, soulful sounds. You can see the country influences often (A-Yo, John Wayne), the favorite blues (Hey Girl, Million Reasons), some rock (Perfect Illusion, Diamond Heart), classic rock-pop (Just Another Day), indie (Joanne), some hints of reggae and ska (Dancin’ In Circles) and some sweet traces of Jazz here and there (Come To Mama). Overall, this album feels intimate. You can imagine being in a bar at three a.m., with only a couple of people left there, and someone singing this album on stage. Some might be inspired to dance, some to kiss, some to cry, and somehow all those actions seem appropriate. Gaga seems to be singing personally to each listener. The tracks here feel more stripped-down, more controlled, more centered. By meticulously calculating and focusing on the details, the overall project turned out looking way better.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that she did it perfectly; sometimes I can’t believe something like Perfect Illusion can be on the same album as Come to Mama or Hey Girl. This will maybe make some people say that the songs from Joanne don’t completely fit with one another, or that the album doesn’t have a cohesive sound. And although they probably aren’t mistaken, I would beg those people to see this as something good on the album. I personally find it entertaining, interesting, endearing, and honestly, it seems that Gaga herself wanted it this way and that it wasn’t a mistake. Even if it’s chaotic in sound, I don’t think it has trouble with this, or that it’s all over the place, as I thought with Artpop (even though Artpop probably had a more controlled sound).
I know this may hurt the fans of Gaga’s earlier works like Poker Face or Bad Romance, more than the critics. This album is nothing like those times. It does have a couple of treats, if you’re looking for that sound, with A-Yo or Dancin’ in Circles, yet most of the songs here are more mature, and less the catchy-pop-songs most people fell in love with Gaga for. Personally, I like mature Gaga more, but I’m sure that has to do with taste.
To be honest, this album is not really a Lady Gaga album—as people generally read into that—but an album by Stefani Germanotta herself. She seems naked here. She presents herself as an artist. Her soul, mind, sweat and ideas seem to be transpiring through most songs, and even if hypothetically I hadn’t liked the album (which I did), I respect that from someone who wants to create art. And even more, if you are one of the biggest names in the industry.
I see this move by Gaga as brave. She is totally alone and vulnerable and honest here. And she must’ve known that this was not what people would expect from her, but she still did it. She decided to stay true to herself and her aesthetic pursuit, rather than do another catchy-feel-good album.
Music and ideas, however, never seem to be Gaga’s problems. Although she has some of her most interesting sounds, best vocals (one should only listen to Joanne or Million Reasons or Angel down to see this) and most mature aesthetic propositions here, she has never failed on doing this on her previous albums. Her weakest side has always been her lyrics. She still falls on some clichés like “I’m not flawless, but I gotta diamond heart” or “Good as gold”; she is still writing cheesy lines like “Hey girl, hey girl, if you lose your way just know that I got you.”; her songs still have some eerie, pseudo-profound lyrics like “If I had a highway, I would run for the hills. If you could find a dry way, I’d forever be still”. And yet, she features some of her best and most authentic writing in this last album.
For example Joanne, the track she titled the album for; it is minimalistic and sweet, with heart-whelming lyrics like “Every part of my aching heart needs you more than the angels do”. This comes together perfectly with the melancholic vocals and the soft melody. Sinner’s Prayer also has a good moment or two, with quite a quotable chorus: “Hear my sinner’s prayer, I am what I am, and I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man but you”. Dancin’ In Circles is surprisingly well written too: “I close my eyes, take a breath, and I picture us in a place I can’t recognize. In the fire, I call your name out. Up full night trying to rub the pain out”. Leave it to Gaga to make a song about masturbation, and still give it some fun sounds and lyrics.
However, if I’d had to criticize all songs for lyrics, the two best songs, for my taste, have to be the raw, angry and brutal Angel Down, and the brilliantly fun but nostalgic Grigio Girls (probably my favorite song of the album in general). Angle Down is a song regarding gun-violence, specifically the incident with Trayvon Martin back in 2012. The song is emotional, effective and very powerful, and here Gaga has written one of her most important songs to date, not only musically, but socially: “Doesn’t everyone belong in the arms of the sacred? Why do we pretend we’re wrong? Has our young courage faded? Shots were fired on the street by the church where we used to meet. Angel down, angel down. Why do people just stand around?”
On the completely opposite spectrum of things, we have Grigio Girls, a song about love between friends (some might say the song has some homoerotic traces in it, but there are no proof of that, and I prefer to see it as a friendship song, because there are way more songs about romance than there are about friends). This song has more simple lyrics, not as deep or raw as Angle Down, but there is something to Gaga singing “I was 23, she was 35, I was spiraling out, and she was so alive. A Texas girl real strong taught me this drunk song.” or “So we’ll turn on a bachelorette, dye Ashley’s hair red. And then we’ll have our sixth Spice Girl in this bitch” that gives it a perfect dose of intimacy and realness to it. You know this is her singing to someone specifically, not just another song inspired by someone that’s applicable to anyone. This person has a name, she knew Gaga, in a way (it is hinted) she saved Gaga, and she is grateful for this. Gaga recalls these times with great nostalgia, and by the end of the song, when the music has ended and it is just the voice of Gaga and women laughing, one can’t help but be a little caught up on the nostalgia too.
This is not to say that her lyrics are perfect—they are definitely are not—but well, neither are Bob Dylan’s and he just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, so.… Just kidding, but honestly, pure poetry is hard to be found in music, because of the rhythm and structure limitations, and yet, I feel as if Gaga has managed to write a satisfyingly well-written album, with great sounds and astonishing vocals. She will have to work on this, if she continues to go for this more artistic and mature audience, but she is moving in a good direction.
Finally, although the themes of the album vary, I believe it all comes down to Lady Gaga’s love. Whether it is to herself (Diamond Heart), to her family (Joanne), to her fans (Come To Mama), to God (Million Reasons, in a way), to a one night stand or a merely sexual partner (John Wayne, Dancin’ In Circles), to a friend (Hey Girl, Grigio Girls), to her romantic interest (Just Another Day, Sinner’s Prayer), to humanity (Angel Down), and to music in general (just listen to it and you’ll know how much Gaga actually adores music, without having to write a song about it), the theme of love is ever-present. That is why this is probably Gaga’s most loving album yet. She has managed to approach the most common theme in pop culture—love—and yet, did so in an original and versatile way, turning it upside down, making it almost imperceptible.
Maybe that is what she tried to do with Artpop, but I have to say, she didn’t accomplish it until now. Why? Probably because of the trueness and nakedness of Joanne. I honestly feel that this album was created from those most organic and authentic thoughts that happen in those minutes or hours between coming drunk after a party, taking off your clothes, cleaning your face, staring at your body in the mirror, going to bed and actually falling asleep. Those minutes when you try to read and drift to thoughts; when you can be really, really horny; when you cry all on your own when you think of how the world will be tomorrow. That is how I imagine Gaga writing this album, and that is how I decide to listen to it.
–José Sebastián Romero