One of the wonderful things about having your own blog, as opposed to writing for a publication, is that you get to pick what you write about. Not being a fan of listening to terrible albums, I generally try to pick ones from artists that I like, so the chances of my enjoying the album (and thus giving a good review) are increased. On occasion, I’m disappointed, thinking that the artists could do better. But in The Jam’s four (!) years of existence, there’s only one album that I’ve ripped apart, and that’s Lady Gaga’s Artpop. So disappointed was I in that effort that I didn’t even bother to listen to her collaboration with Tony Bennett. Adding to that was the fact that, like many “Great American Songbook” type albums, it consists of selections from the same catalog of about 30 songs or so, that have been covered so many times that it almost makes me instantly fall asleep when I hear another one. But when Gaga came out with her latest proper album, I figured I owed it at least a listen. After all, she had two good albums, one great one, and one bad one, so the odds were at least in her favor.
Right from the first note of Joanne, it was like Gaga read my review and adjusted her recording because of it. Artpop’s biggest Achilles heel was that it was overproduced, and the weird sounds and beats crowded out Gaga’s vocals and made the songs incoherent. “Diamond Heart” opens with a restrained synth and a basic beat, with Gaga’s singing once again taking center stage. The thing people miss in between all her cool sounds, political statements, and relatable lyrics is that Gaga is actually a really good singer. While she doesn’t have a titanic, Mariah Carey-style vocal range, she can belt and emote with the absolute best of them. Many of the songs on Joanne enable her to show this off, such as the title track, “Million Reasons,” “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Angel Down.”
The album alternates between these sorts of tracks and more upbeat, dance-style tracks like “A-Yo,” “Dancin’ In Circles,” and the first single, “Perfect Illusion.” The latter track is probably the best on the album, because it brings these two distinct styles into a nice fusion. It’s upbeat and danceable, sure, but it also has the raw and authentic vocal style as well. So authentic, in fact, that Gaga didn’t use Autotune on her voice at all in the track. The other songs in this category have interesting sounds in them like before, but the producers and Gaga are particularly careful not to go overboard with it.
Gaga also continues her tradition of interesting and relevant lyrics in her songs, that she sort of lost her way with in Artpop. The song “Joanne” shows once again that she’s able to deal with death in a dignified way in her songs. The song is about her aunt’s death, and rather than being overemotional and melodramatic, she sings about how she isn’t ready for her to die in what comes off as a sweet and sincere sentiment. For “Hey Girl” she recruits Florence + the Machine’s Florence Welch as a second vocalist, and their voices complement each other well. The song is about encouraging women to lift each other up rather than tear each other down. Such a concept has been explored before, but having the second vocalist reinforces the message and makes it more relatable, I think. Finally, “Angel Down” is a song that Gaga said is her response to Trayvon Martin’s 2012 shooting death. Though I think the song’s theme can be extended to apply to the recent rash of police shootings of African-American suspects. Musically, my only gripe with it is the weirdly abrupt ending, which wouldn’t be as bad if it weren’t also the ending of the album.
All of this adds up to an album that is light years better than Artpop, and stands among her earlier work. At times, I think, the album goes too far the other way, and isn’t adventurous enough. There were times when I was listening to it that I missed the magical mystery tour that songs like “Judas” or “Alejandro” would take me on. Maybe for her next effort, she can land somewhere in between the restrained dignity of Joanne and the ghastly excess of Artpop. Such an album would probably be even better than this one, though I’m still going to give this one a buy it rating. Here are my track picks: