I realize I’m late to the game in reviewing Lady Gaga’s new album Artpop, which came out in November, but I had put off listening to it for some time. I’d heard a lot of negative comments about the album, with some critics deriding it as “Artflop.” I’ve been a fan of Gaga since her first single, and I was worried that I wouldn’t like the album either, and didn’t want to sully her reputation in my head. Back in September, I wondered if the lyrics in the first single, “Applause” indicated that she was going in a more avant-garde direction with her new album, and whether it would still be accessible to fans like me who have been with her from the beginning.
The answer to that question comes right at the start of the album’s first track, “Aura.” With its dissonant sounds that seem to resemble a mandolin and an odd quality to the vocals, I can’t tell if she’s trying to be avant-garde or if this song is just poorly-executed pop music. This track sets a tone for the rest of the album, as most of the songs are far too overproduced and busy. Gaga and her producers try to incorporate so many different sounds on the album that it makes the songs incoherent and severely hinders their melodic flow. “Venus,” “MANiCURE,” and “Jewels N’ Drugs,” are probably the most egregious offenders.
The album’s lyrical content is also questionable, and veers closer to the weirder elements of Born This Way and away from the accessible, yet unique pop that characterized her first two albums. Gaga’s lyrics for the most part used to be smart and occasionally feature good social commentary. The sad part is, there are still hints of that intelligence on this album. “Aura,” for example, uses the metaphor of a burqa, the veil commonly worn by women in some Muslim countries, to talk about a woman who doesn’t let people in easily out of fear or arrogance. “Donatella” is a humorous satire of the rich, fashion-obsessed class of American society. “Gypsy” presents a romantic and passionate view of traveling the world with someone you care about. But these lyrics too often get lost in the sludge of the harsh and badly-produced beats she chooses to fill the songs with.
That said, this album has a few high points. “Do What U Want” is probably the best-executed song on the album. It seems to be a response to criticism Gaga has faced throughout her career, with a “come at me, bro,” sort of attitude. R. Kelly’s vocal line is smooth and well-delivered. The aforementioned “Donatella” is also entertaining, and is probably the only time I cracked a smile while listening to this album. And the lead single “Applause” fits in well with the rest of the record but shows a tad more restraint.
But when I think about the songs that made Lady Gaga great, like “The Edge of Glory,” “Judas,” “Alejandro,” and “Telephone,” I realize that there is not a single song on Artpop that comes close to measuring up to any of those. I feel like Gaga is smarter and better than this, and I hope she improves with her next record. I think what she really needs to do is step back and take a look at the big picture. Tone down the aggressiveness and shear away all the extraneous sounds in her songs and just get back to basics. Oh yeah, and fire all her producers from this album. Her songs thrived on good lyrics, straightforward & danceable melodies, and smart messages. If she can do that while mixing in a little creativity as she has done in the past, I think her next album has a chance to be successful. But this one gets the first ever skip it rating from The Jam. I’ll post three of the tracks that I highlighted above, because they’re frankly the only tracks I enjoyed listening to consistently.
“Do What U Want” (featuring R. Kelly)
*You might have to click on another link within the video to watch these separately on YouTube. For whatever reason the embedding doesn’t seem to be working correctly*