Despite being in the spotlight for less than a decade, Lady Gaga has already cemented a solid place for herself in pop music and celebrity culture in general. I have no problem with this, being a fan of her first to projects The Fame and The Fame Monster. While I started to lose interest at the turn of the decade with Born This Way underwhelming me. Even Artpop, which I find to be underrated, was still too showy in its experimentation to say I really loved it. This made me a little worried about Joanne but considering the period of time she took between albums, and her charming Tony Bennett collaboration, I had hopes for this project.
I do think when it comes to opening the album, Gaga played it smart by choosing the song “Diamond Heart.” While imperfect in many ways, the song has energy, showing the side of Gaga her fans want, and introduces the country rock influences that were rumored to fill this album. The chorus on here really needed to be mixed better, jumping in intensity and just sounding overly choppy. The instrumentation, provided by Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme on guitar and Father John Misty, is excellent however.
The following song “A-YO” is exactly what I would expect a countrified version of Gaga would sound like. Her work with prolific country songwriter Hillary Lindsey worked in her favor on this track, blending her traditional pop sound with elements of country. While it still sounds like something I could see someone like Miley Cyrus performing, it still works for Gaga.
As much as the country sound had me interested, it is lost for a decent portion of this album’s center. Producer Mark Ronson definitely wanted to focus more on the rock aspect of “country rock” on “John Wayne.” Despite this change in sound, the rougher vocals and production won me over and I found myself really enjoying this song.
“Dancin’ in Circles” is not even subtle with its allusions to masturbation, with lyrics like “feels good to be lonely,” “up all night trying to rub the pain out,” and “funk me downtown” being presented just in the chorus. Does it remotely sound like country? No. Does it have lyrics that have any deeper message to reflect on? No. It is, however, a fun, well-sung track that was co-written by Beck himself and I could not be happier with the end result. While he is not given a producing credit, you can still hear Beck all over the wild production here and it just makes me so excited for what he has in store for his upcoming album.
Then we get “Perfect Illusion,” the big lead single from this record, one that I was turned off from when I first heard it back in September. Maybe it was just disappointment after all the hype, but it did not connect with me, outside of Gaga’s delivery which was clearly emotive. Over time, the lyrics have grown on me, as have the contributions from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, but the 80s rock sound just does not fit on here. While this same criticism could be given to “Dancin’ in Circles,” that song was at least more fun than this which is just cramming so much in just three minutes so you cannot focus on any of it. The key change also felt a little unnecessary, really just adding to my issue with the fast pacing.
Outside of these tracks, the album does try and stay authentic with a country sound. “Joanne” is an excellent example of this, working well as an acoustic ballad in tribute to Lady Gaga’s late aunt who passed away at age 19, before Gaga was born. It was nice to see Gaga strip down her production and deliver this touching song in a tasteful way. The same can be said for “Million Reasons” which puts Gaga back on piano and showcases her most emotive delivery on the record. Hillary Lindsey comes back again as a co-writer and is even more present here than she was on “A-YO.” The lyrics on trying to find a reason to stay with your partner who is incredibly flawed is powerful and hits strong, especially considering Gaga’s own engagement being broken off recently.
The following two songs do bring the record up from this emotional track, thanks to some excellent writing from Father John Misty. His words can be heard most clearly on “Sinner’s Prayer,” complimenting Gaga’s personality well, as she begs to be accepted with all her sins intact, something Father John Misty has explored in his own music. While not quite as strong, “Come to Mama” works in an entirely different way, working as an empowering song for women everywhere. The instrumentation accompanies Gaga well, as do the backing vocals. While still blending a little too much pop into the mix, it is still a fun track that I can get behind.
Female empowerment continues to be a strong theme on the duet with Florence Welch, “Hey Girl.” The two work great together, really showing some solid chemistry and working well with the production. While the instrumentation is a little simple, and the country sound has been substituted for synths, it does what it needs to do to accompany these artists.
The closing track is probably the most difficult to talk about as it is one I really want to like more than I do. “Angel Down,” focused on the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin, is definitely well-intentioned and done in an incredibly respectful way. It is clear Gaga cares about what she is singing about and is not just jumping on an issue to get attention. Honestly, if this song was released in 2012, closer to the actual events, maybe it would have hit a little harder than it does now. While an incredibly important issue worthy of discussion, it has been the center of several songs, most recently on Drive-By Trucker’s excellent “What It Means,” this song fails to offer much new to the subject. I am still glad Gaga included the song, as any attention to police brutality is important, I just wish the substance was more unique.
Despite being disjointed and occasionally uncommitted to its country sound, this record came together just fine and is probably Gaga’s best solo work in a few years. I love seeing her collaborate with various acclaimed artists and put them to good use. I still wish the country on here felt a little more genuine, really only feeling justified on the title track and “Million Reasons” and even then it does not come together as well as something like Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons.”
Also, if this album proves anything, it is that Mark Ronson is about as versatile as pop producers come. He handles all the various sounds and styles this record goes for and tries his best to make it all fit together and it comes close to working so I have to commend him for that.
It is also nice to see her less focused on being showy and experiment in a much more subtle way than she did on Artpop. She is able to strip down, while still appealing to a mainstream audience, something I really think she needed to do. It is clear that Gaga has the ambition to continue making great albums, even if these last few have not lived up to her early work. Once she is able to focus on a sound and lyrical content, she will be able to make something truly special. Even if this is not that album, Gaga fans will be happy with what they got.
Best Tracks: Joanne, John Wayne, Dancin’ in Circles, Million Reasons, Sinner’s Prayer, Come to Mama
Worst Track: Perfect Illusion