They say that hurt people hurt people, and so it follows that Lady Gaga’s tortured new single, “Perfect Illusion,” is torturous. Compressed within an inch of its life a la the brick waveforms of Born This Way, this lead single from her as-yet-untitled fifth album is a wall of shrill sounds. There’s the distorted wail that opens the song and pierces the eardrums with a metronome’s precision, a hair-metal guitar riff that gets buried under the screeching, and Gaga’s own voice. Her deflating hook is practically D.O.A., and Gaga’s theatrical delivery doesn’t seem particularly interested in conveying anything aside bravado. She sounds just as ghastly as the rest of it, though the tunnel she makes of her throat to push out a multisyllabic “love” (“luh-uhhh-uuuv”) is kind of a neat trick.
A power ballad with a robust bass drum (when you can make it out), “Perfect Illusion” was co-produced by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and BloodPop (who co-produced Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”). “Illusion” takes the basic form of the far superior “Bad Romance” (chanted bridge and all) and just makes it all ugly.
Despite lyrics that manage to be nonsensical in the most vague and bland way possible (“Trying to get control / Pressure’s taking its toll / Stuck in the middle zone / I just want you alone,” “High like amphetamine / maybe it’s just a dream”), Gaga claims there’s social commentary here. To the U.K.’s Radio One, she said:
I believe many of us are wondering why there are so many fake things around us. How do we navigate through social media? How do we look through these images that we know are filtered and altered, and decipher what is reality and what is a perfect illusion? There are also a lot of things on the internet that are not reality. And I think people are pressured to keep that personal illusion going on in their real lives. So this song is about raging against it and letting it go. It’s about wanting people to re-establish that human connection.
Could have fooled me—this song sounds calculated to repel. Three years after her underwhelming, self-inflating Artpop project, and this is what one of the best pop songwriters of her time comes back with? Be afraid... or just focus your time on the more perfect illusions that are mere clicks away.