It was likely inevitable that she’d make an album with this intention at some point.Kevin Tachman / MG19 / Getty

Fame is pain. That’s always been one of Lady Gaga’s messages. Whether via spiked shoulder pads, skyscraper heels, or raw-meat pleats, her early persona read as mad-scientist fashion model: someone shellacking and reshaping herself for the public’s amusement. As she sang assaultively catchy songs about excess and applause while spurting blood or in gilded wheelchairs, she reminded viewers that the destruction of the body has too often been the rite through which human beings have become popular icons. Maybe, it seemed back then, she could circumvent that rite by acknowledging it. Maybe by going meta she could become a true immortal.

Sadly and sure enough, Gaga’s performance art did not prevent serious torment. She broke a hip on tour in 2013. She began speaking of a pain disorder, and of mental anguish, and of having survived sexual assault. She gave up on jackhammering dance music and instead took to the gentler swaddling of jazz and folk. She made a movie, A Star Is Born, that depicted the early thrills of fame leading to addiction and doom. She recorded lyrics about healing and cures. All along, many fans wished for her to return to the superhuman persona and aggressive sound of before. But Gaga’s growing interest in displaying human fragility hinted that it could be unsafe to go glam again.

Yet here comes Gaga’s new album, Chromatica, a front-to-back rave that she has billed as a return to form. Like in her early days, there are disco drums and spoken-word passages in vaguely European accents. There are colorful costumes, otherworldly music videos, and even a half-baked thematic gimmick. (Chromatica, you see, is a planet of translucent mountains and warring tribes. There is no mention of this in the songs themselves). But the album’s not a reversion—it’s a deescalation. It is pop music that tries to wash itself of the trappings of popularity, so as to be more nourishing or therapeutic. The results include patches of fabulosity and long stretches of just-okayness, suggesting that she’s made peace with the idea that not every track needs to change the world. Sometimes a beat and a hook are enough.

One change is tonal. From 2008’s The Fame to 2013’s Artpop, Gaga and her producers fused together an ever-shifting, hyper-modern rumble over which the singer performed a campy horror show. For Chromatica, though, the musical approach is light, crystalline, and quite pretty. It’s also astonishingly retro. Many tracks beam straight into an early-’90s warehouse with spritzing hi-hats, rhythmic piano, and spiraling diva wails. Or they go for a late-’90s/early-2000s lane occupied by Cher’s “Believe” and less remembered trances such as Dirty Vegas’s “Days Go By”: the unfashionable moment when house and techno—underground queer and black sounds—got smoothed out for megaclubs and yoga classes. Yet as a vocalist, Gaga is just too heavy to pull off airy. The most rote retreads (“Free Woman,” “1000 Doves,” “Sour Candy”) don’t grate, but they don’t feel like they go anywhere.

As always in Gaga’s career, the standout moments here are wacky ones. The gasping chorus of “Alice,” the whipping dynamic turns of “Rain on Me,” and the trampolining sound effects of “Replay” all are addictively dramatic. Other highlights show Gaga’s knack for tunes in which incongruous-seeming passages—silky one moment, shrieking the next—fit together deliciously. The playfully robotic “911” reveals new intricacies with each listen. The opening melody of “Enigma” radiates vulnerability and intrigue. Best of all is the baffling closer, “Babylon,” whose B.C.-ballroom conceit conjures the thought of hieroglyphic figures lip-synching to Madonna’s “Vogue.” If certain listeners get snippy at her channeling the Queen of Pop yet again, Gaga’s absolutely unbothered. “Rip that song,” she drawls. “Gossip, babble on!”

Indeed, hand-wringing about Madonna’s influence on Gaga—hand-wringing rooted in sexism and naïveté about the referential nature of pop—are exactly the sort of celebrity-narrative nonsense Gaga wants to transcend with Chromatica. She is no longer baiting the public with Andy Warhol tactics obscuring her identity. Nor is she making arch anthems bragging about fame or lust turning her into a glamorous monster. She’s not even particularly interested in tidy political messaging. Mostly, now, she lets her themes arise simply from the stories she tells about her own struggles with depression, anxiety, and the record industry. “You love the paparazzi, love the fame,” she sings, possibly into the mirror, in the sparkling but doleful “Fun Tonight.” “Even though you know it causes me pain.”

Paparazzi and fame are, of course, keywords from her early career. When Gaga uses those terms, she’s noting the way that whatever psychic and physical troubles she’s had are linked, on some level, to carefree songs. But Chromatica wants to make something clear: It’s not the songs themselves that hurt her. In fact, as she has said repeatedly in the promotional process, music has served as her medicine. On “Alice,” Gaga sings of her racing mind needing a “symphony” to clear it. The preposterously theatrical Elton John collaboration “Sine From Above” attempts to spin a mythical origin story about sound waves striking her in the fashion of Peter Parker’s irradiated spider. It’s the joy of pop as a sensory experience, separate from the machine around it, that she wants to access with Chromatica’s straightforward, relatively statement-free sound.  

It was likely inevitable that she’d make an album with that intention at some point. In recent years, the melodically forceful, production-polished, perkily danceable sound Gaga helped perfect has lost cultural centrality as hip-hop and R&B have become America’s most-listened-to genres. Dance pop now sometimes seems like an object of cult admiration led by lower-key singers such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX. Gaga still has the name and talent to land hits; “Rain on Me,” her collaboration with Ariana Grande, should chart well. But after Artpop and 2016’s Joanne failed to produce smashes, she surely knows that hits aren’t guaranteed anymore. Chromatica comes across as the work of someone ready to decouple from expectations of cultural domination.

Maybe the context of 2020 turmoil makes Chromatica’s ambitions feel small, too. The coronavirus pandemic robbed her listeners of the dance floors on which these new songs would make the most sense, and accordingly Gaga pushed back the album’s release by nearly two months (during which she trained her celebrity firepower on raising money for relief efforts). Now, as Chromatica arrives amid tense clashes over racism nationwide, Gaga has mostly suspended promotion of the album while expressing support for protesters. She probably gets that there is no credible way to say her new music speaks to our times, save for one: by providing escapist joy to individuals in pain. That’s an important feat, but one whose limits Gaga knows well.

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