Joanne is in no way a people pleaser album. “Perfect Illusion”, the first single off of Lady Gaga‘s fifth release, was the presage to her latest chapter being her most personal yet. The ’80s-touched power ballad, ensconced in dark disco, left most listeners bewildered, despite her openly valiant vocals and common subject of romantic disappointment. The track is acerbic to the rest of her catalog as it’s been eight years since her dance-pop debut The Fame.
That album catapulted her into the new canon, or class, of pop stars that included Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. Gaga was the certified weirdo and embraced it. Every video was more elaborate and expensive than the last, and concepts were overblown, with a major focus on mainstream pop art, an overzealous pop culture media, and sexual politics. By Artpop‘s 2013 arrival, it appeared that only her true fan base could stomach the schticks and outfits much longer (minus her acclaimed Gatsby wandering, mentored by legend Tony Bennett).
Artpop was discounted as trashy pop. Joanne, named after her late, beloved aunt, in which she also bears as her middle name, steers away from the circus and returns Gaga home to the humble stage of the acoustic. Country-soul is the phonic inspiration for Joanne. There are no clear hits here, aside from possibly “Hey Girl” a milky tune that unexpectedly begins like a classic 1981 R&B track that would go on to be heavily sampled in the ’90s. Joined by Florence Welch of Florence and The Machine, their duet promotes female empowerment. An always affable conversation, it is also apt as the 2016 election approaches this November. Hillary Clinton is on the ticket as the official Democratic nominee and the closest woman ever to enter the White House as President.
Their voices compliment each other wonderfully and, adorably, they sound alike. Opposite from Taylor Swift‘s booming “Bad Blood” that was reportedly about a riff with Katy Perry, “Hey Girl” urges for grown woman solidarity with lyrics such as: “Hey girl, hey girl. We can make it easy if we lift each other. Hey girl, hey girl. We don’t need to keep on one’in up another.” Girl power hasn’t sounded this nourishing and sincere in years.
Otherwise, Joanne is the bluegrass-est joyride in contemporary music today. Opener “Diamond Heart” is one of the best tracks Gaga has dispensed to the public. Loosely referencing the real diamond engagement ring she received from former fiance Taylor Kinney, it rockets off with confidence that’s pissed off. The first verse is blunt: “Some asshole broke me in. Wrecked all my innocence. I’ll just keep go-go’n. And this dance is on you.”
“A-Yo” might’ve sounded awful if you heard it alone via audio on YouTube, but on Joanne is qualified. The title track is a tender ode to her’s journey of self-discovery. Delicately turned to Gaga’s raw, afflicted voice, the shades of Diana Ross‘ “Do You Know Where You’re Going” guide the inquiry of “Girl, where do you think you’re going?” here.
“John Wayne” named after the irascible Western icon is a dance, dive bar break from the heart-rending “Joanne.” The grab a beer and dance your blues away idea continues with “Dancin’ Circles”, a spin-off of her ’08 song “Just Dance” and is co-written by Beck. Terrifically self-deprecating, lyrics like “Baby don’t cry, baby don’t cry. Dancin’ in circles, it feels good to be lonely” will allow the lonely to feel less alone after this stewed avowal.
“Million Reasons” is the second single and a tough song to translate into the Top 40. On first listen, the first verse is beautifully sung and you’re invested that Gaga will feel better once leaving a falling relationship. The most journal song on the album, and admittedly a downer, it could be viewed as a testimonial to the media and that complicated inner voice that self-love is a pilgrimage not a privilege in the heat of madness, depression, anxiety, and pain. Convincingly in the chorus, Gaga cleverly added: “But baby, I just need one good one to stay.”
Audibly recollecting a spaghetti western film, “Sinner’s Prayer” is cinnamon ale smooth and asks for forgiveness while handing the reminder that one is only human, or cowgirl, sometimes. Gaga recently revealed during a radio interview with Zane Lowe, and visibly annoyed, that she disliked comparisons to Madonna, her one-time top female artist to name drop at the beginning of her fame (she somewhat pulled a Swift during the chat, as “Hey Girl” on the other hand exalts sisterhood). Somehow, “Sinner’s Prayer” is a grand sequel to Madge’s 2000 track “I Deserve It” from her own 2000 country-lite/electro album, the surprisingly great Music .
Its “predecessor” was much more funereal: “Many miles, many roads I have traveled. Fallen down on the way. Many hearts, many years have unraveled. Leading up to today.” While Gaga reacted wistfully to her mistakes: “Hear my sinner’s prayer. I am what I am. And I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man. But you, but you.Oh, hear my sinner’s prayer
It’s the only one I know. It sure as hell don’t rhyme. But it’s as good as, good as, good as, good as gold.”
“Come to Mama” is skippable, and after “Hey Girl” comes “Angel Down.” A shadowy walk down a lane of which angels (people we care about) must be saved. It was written in tribute to Trayvon Martin, the Black Floridian teen who was unjustifiably stalked and murdered by racist George Zimmerman in 2012. Gaga confirmed this during that same interview with Lowe. “Angel Down” is not an obvious song to press repeat on, but it’s good.
Joanne is Lady Gaga’s most singer-songwriter workspace we’ve had on record . As a born and raised Manhattan girl, her use of Southern music culture was exercised to artistic reaches her piano skills and Broadway vocals have always promised for years, based on various award show performances and selective singles.
She has matured from her days of wrapping infatuation and love as “Paparazzi” tendencies to simply owning her bullshit and calling out the callous ways of others. Real-life Joanne is proud up above. (Some) fans from day one may be ambivalent towards Joanne, but Lady Gaga as an artist and a woman is ready to evolve and is doing so with no apologies. Ragged booty shorts, studded jacket, and wide cowboy hat and all. Welcome home.