I liked nine of the 14 songs on the deluxe version of Lady Gaga’s fifth studio album, Joanne well enough, and will listen to three or four of those with some regularity over the next few months. And you know what? Three or four is pretty good! Or, at least better than ARTPOP (the only song I still revisit is “G.U.Y.”) and Born This Way (which has “Edge of Glory” and “You and I”). So in that way, Joanne is a major success. But the album, out Friday, is a jarring experience, one that showcases what she does best (by stripping down her vocals) and worst (by trying to convince us she’s crafted something thematically significant.)
When an artist declares an album to be their “most personal” ever, you should hope for greatness and strap yourself in for a crash landing. Just last month, Solange Knowles pulled it off with her stunning (and stunningly personal) A Seat At the Table. But despite its loving dedication to Gaga’s late aunt, the only thing Joanne has taught me about herself is that she might secretly wish she were a country singer.
After opening with the exciting “Diamond Heart” and “A-YO,” in which she mixes her own version of country rock with lyrics that channel both Lana Del Rey (the former is from the POV of a stripper who wails lines like “it doesn’t pay to be good”) and Carrie Underwood when she’s lashing out (“Lock me up and breathe in, mirror on the ceiling”), Gaga quiets down with “Joanne,” a moving love letter to her aunt who died of Lupus at age 19. Next comes “John Wayne,” her silly, vaguely country track about smoking weed (which the cool kids apparently call “John Wayne” now) to forget about your troubles.
But after grabbing me with those openers, Joanne quickly loses any sense of a theme and becomes what feels like a series of false starts. While I liked many of them (especially “Million Reasons,” the ultra-country “Sinner’s Prayer,” and the tremendous “Come to Mama”), I kept getting the feeling that Gaga didn’t know what to do with this thing. Should she go full country or not? Should she be Stevie Nicks or Darlene Love? And by the time you get to “Grigio Girls,” which appears on the deluxe version, you think, “Who the hell is this album for?”
While much has been written (by this site, in fact) about the painfully imperfect “Perfect Illusion,” the song is significantly more tolerable in context, as Gaga playfully positioned it immediately after her ode to masturbation “Dancing In Circle.” The album’s biggest problem is actually its final track, “Angel Down.” The song, which Gaga says is about the murder of Trayvon Martin, is the album’s most explicitly political, and has the best of intentions, but it’s hard to listen to Gaga scorn those who did nothing after Martin’s death four years after the fact.
“Shots were fired on the street, by the church where we used to meet / angel down, angel down, but the people just stood around.”
It all feels like a vigil held too late—one populated by cardboard cutouts and battery-operated flickering lights, not grieving humans holding candles. I don’t doubt her compassion, just her intentions. This song is begging to be congratulated, and I have major doubts that it will be.
So that’s Joanne. Confusing, but enjoyable! Inconsistent, but occasionally a lot of fun! And, unlike the disaster that was Artpop, only briefly insufferable! It feels like a mix-tape of songs from three or four Lady Gaga albums that don’t actually exist, but it’s one I don’t mind having around. And while it doesn’t feel as personal as she seems to think it should, it’s the most I’ve enjoyed a full album of hers since The Fame.