Lady Gaga set herself a bars o high with the release of her debut album The Fame in 2008 that she’s come in for a harsh time from the critics ever since. That album sold over 15 million copies worldwide and 2011 follow-up Born This Way passed global sales of 6 million. After that point the critics sharpened their knives for Gaga’s third album Artpop, which arrived in 2013. The album sold significantly less than her first two and critics started to accuse Gaga of pushing her image and music into places that were too weird. Her response was to completely change her image and team up with Tony Bennett for jazz album Cheek to Cheek in 2014.
The success of Cheek to Cheek reminded everyone just what a formidable singer Gaga is and while sales were still lower than her previous releases, the album picked up plenty of critical acclaim and awards. Since 2014 Gaga has picked up a Golden Globe for her performance as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel and been nominated for an Oscar for Til It Happens To You, a song she wrote with Diane Warren for The Hunting Ground. Now her focus is back on her solo material with the release of fifth album Joanne.
Joanne was expected to be a return to the pop days of The Fame but lead single Perfect Illusion proved that wasn’t going to be the case. With Mark Ronson on co-writing and co-producing duties for Joanne, Gaga’s sound has been given another makeover. Gone are the processed beats and electronic production of her past albums and in its place are singer-songwriter musings that take on elements of rock, folk and country. It’s not a direction many expected the star to take but it’s one that she wears well.
Perfect Illusion may have been a disappointing comeback single but in the context of Joanne it actually makes much more sense. Gaga enjoys doing the unexpected and she’s certainly done that with this mature body of songs. Diamond Heart opens the record and it starts off as a low-key affair with dark lyrics about the trials and tribulations Gaga has faced getting to this point in her career. The song soon opens up letting Gaga’s voice soar over a crunchy beat and wild guitars.
Across the album Gaga tries on a variety of personas. A-Yo is the closest to pure pop that she gets on the record as hand-claps drive a uptempo beat, Million Reasons positions her as a vocalist adding gentle harmonies to Gaga’s vocals for an emotive mid-album moment., and Come to Mama puts her on a stage at a honky tonk bar for a loose but infectious ditty.
When Gaga doesn’t try so hard, she shines the brightest. Title track Joanne, named after Gaga’s grandmother, is one of the highlights on the record keeping the production simple and allowing Gaga’s distinctive voice to steal the spotlight. Piano ballad Angel Down is another moment that sends shivers down your spine as Gaga keeps things downtempo but powerful.
Other highlights on the record include the almost reggae beats of Dancin’ In Circles, and the rock edge of John Wayne. I could have done without the Florence Welch duet Hey Girl but that’s the only track I reached for the skip button during (and that’s only because Welch’s voice goes through me).
Joanne may not be the return to pop that many had hoped for but it showcases the evolution of one of the world’s most interesting and compelling musicians. The real winner here is Gaga’s voice, which is allowed to shine throughout the record. Musically it may be different to what we’ve heard from Gaga before but at its heart it’s still the same Gaga we’ve always known and loved. Give the album a chance and you’ll find it quickly grows on you.
Track List: 1. Diamond Heart 2. A-Yo 3. Joanne 4. John Wayne 5. Dancin’ In Circles 6. Perfect Illusion 7. Million Reasons 8. Sinner’s Prayer 9. Come to Mama 10. Hey Girl (feat Florence Welch) 11. Angel Down 12. Grigio Girls 13. Just Another Day 14. Angel Down (Work Tape) Record Company: Interscope Release Date: 21st October 2016