“I want your everything as long as it’s free”—right there, in her biggest single, Lady Gaga nailed the eternal tease of pop music. In three easy minutes, you feel immortal, unbeatable, the ultimate person. You stand at the edge, the edge, the edge, but know you won’t tumble over. It was a proposition Gaga tested with ever-more gusto until the safety harness snapped for 2013’s Artpop, where each songs seemed to have six different choruses and 42 layers of synthesizer and zero filter on its lyrics about the insatiable need to feed off of human attention. Suddenly, the listener felt implicated; the rush became lurid; everything was no longer free.
Gaga then retreated into tribute performances and the grounding wisdom of Tony Bennett, resulting finally in her new album Joanne, a self-described return to pop “without makeup.” It used to be that although she was among one of the most famous performers in the world, most people wouldn’t have been able to identify her in plainclothes. Now she sits unadorned on her album cover, with the only controversial fashion choice for the related marketing campaign being a bit of underboob. Decent move, PR-wise, perhaps: Here I am, humbled by my Icarus fall. But musically, she has overcorrected and hired a team with more gimmicks than guts, resulting in a “personal” album that—while often enjoyable—seems like it’s trying to hide its personality.
The once-singular Gaga has played up the image of her as a bandleader this time out, touting the work of the executive producer Mark Ronson—the vinyl-era fetishist of Amy Winehouse and “Uptown Funk” fame—as well as the Top 40 tinkerer BloodPop, the Nashville hitmaker Hillary Lindsey, and the indie rockers Kevin Parker and Josh Homme. “We built our musical family of no rules pop cowboy dance soul funk rock,” Gaga wrote on Instagram, perhaps revealing the label the team gave their group-text.
Sometimes, the album nearly lives up to the gonzo promise of that description. There’s the opener “Diamond Heart,” which begins in Neil Young mode—electric piano, Gaga with a high and delicate drawl—and moves to a tumbling-then-rising chorus from the school of Springsteen. On that song and elsewhere, the grain of her voice is strikingly textured, a pushback in the era of pitch correction. Lead single “Perfect Illusion” remains an effective tribute to cocaine’s effects; its poor chart performance in the face of immense catchiness owes to its bravely abrasive melding of genres. The shimmying “A-YO” will go into immediate rotation at Coyote Ugly. Most tantalizingly, the nonsense chorus of “John Wayne” offers a glimpse into what Joanne could have been had Gaga taken her old robo-Slavic-hedonist shtick to the Wild West. When she screams “go FASTER!” in the song’s intro, it’s one of the album’s few examples of Gaga doing what Gaga got famous for, glorifying the extreme.
The rest of the album is struck in the middle zone, seemingly out of a misguided attempt at communicating maturity. The sturdily crafted ballads “Million Reasons” and “Joanne” might have been exceptional if Gaga the songwriter excelled at the small and specific like Taylor Swift does. But whether eulogizing an aunt she never knew or considering a wrenching breakup, she reaches for generic language—angels gone to heaven, etc.—without offering any twists. If the music cracked open to highlight the mythic scale of her words, that’d be one thing. But it holds back.
Part of the problem lies in Gaga and Ronson’s approach to homage. 1970s singer/songwriters might not be as trendy touchstone as ‘80s synth-pop is right now, but that doesn’t excuse the late-album run of “Sinner’s Prayer,” “Come to Mama,” and “Hey Girl” coasting on swipes from the likes of Johnny Cash, Mama Cass, and Elton John. It’s not that the songs are throwbacks; it’s that they’re the kind of throwbacks whose course you can predict from the first few bars. Ronson has said BloodPop was brought in late in the process to throw some modern touches into the mix, but the extent of his contributions mostly seems to be in fleeting vocal samples that don’t so much enhance the music as timestamp it. The one inspired moment of this section is when “Hey Girl” enters a lovely, woozy bridge as Gaga and Florence Welch duet about a 4 a.m. bonding experience.
The sense that Gaga’s working with collaborators who don’t quite get her virtues comes through clearest on the masturbation ode “Dancin’ In Circles,” which Ronson has described as “classic Gaga, like ‘Alejandro.’” The song will, indeed, trigger a lot of people to start singing “hot like Mexico, enjoy” over its “La Isla Bonita”-derived beat. But revisit “Alejandro” and you remember the beguiling synth line snaking through the song, tugging listeners along and complementing Gaga’s fantasy. On “Dancin’ In Circles,” meanwhile, the production offers an Art of Noise-y pastiche of sound effects that simply adorn, rather than supercharge, the singer’s hooks.
Even more frustrating is the fate of the album’s closer, “Angel Down,” which reportedly was the first song that Gaga and her longtime producer RedOne presented to Ronson (it’s also the only RedOne credit on Joanne). The bonus tracks for the deluxe version include the song’s demo, and it’s by far the best product of this Gaga era: just piano and guitars as Gaga sings a winding melody with increasing abandon, to the point where she’s screaming the final chorus. On the Ronson/BloodPop version that made the album, though, the song has become strangely mannered, gilded in harps and forfeiting the original’s searing vocals. It’s an odd treatment for lyrics that, Gaga says, were inspired by Trayvon Martin’s death. And it’s a clear demonstration that the stripped-down and personal Gaga could have given a lot more than Joanne does.