‘Call me Joanne.’
With those three words, Stefani Germanotta — also known as Lady Gaga — kicked off the campaign for her fifth album proper, culminating in ‘Joanne’, her most personal record to date, and her most unusual record to date. The record, named after her middle name and her beloved late aunt, is a stripped-back attempt at revealing the Italian-American girl behind the populist artist.
Her previous record, the electronic-infused ‘ARTPOP’ was a decisive record, despite its solid tunes and pop punches, and ‘Joanne’ feels, in many ways, a reaction to this backlash; if ‘ARTPOP’ was the pinnacle in excess, in frenetic artistic expression, then ‘Joanne’ is the return to simplicity, to the ‘authentic artist’.
For fans expecting another glossy slice of electropop, there’ll be some adjustments required, as Gaga shifts away the shackles of straightforward pop and moves towards influences such as Americana, country, and indie genres, for her latest musical venture. Fortunately, she’s also enlisted the help of some solid collaborators on the record – DJ producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson is the executive producer, for example.
The propulsive lead single ‘Perfect Illusion’ seems a little out of place on the album, but is nonetheless enjoyably raw, with addictive instrumentation (thanks to Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker) and crackling, impressive vocals from Gaga. This same energy pops up across the album – such as in the plaintive, EDM-pop of album opener ‘Diamond Heart’, the Beck-assisted beat of midtempo masturbation anthem ‘Dancin’ In Circles’, and the country-pop bop of no-doubt-future-single ‘A-YO’.
The rest of the album divides itself between slightly more upbeat numbers, and a group of well-constructed ballads. Breakout single, ‘Million Reasons’ is an emotive, haunting ballad that shrouds the ghost of a failed, or failing relationship; other songs such as the Trayvon Martin response torch song ‘Angel Down’ manages to be heartfelt, while the sonically minimal title track is the album’s standout song for its heart-rendering acoustic bittersweetness.
Other ventures into hitherto unexplored musical territory for Gaga have mixed results – ‘Come To Mama’, a bouncy, jazzy number that nods to her recent collaborations with a certain Mr Bennett, is sprightly, while ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ misfires a little in its attempt for a pure country tune. The big duet on the album, ‘Hey Girl’ is less of an attempt to recreate another ‘Telephone’-level global banger, as it is a showcase for the impressive vocal acrobatics of Gaga and Florence Welch (she of Florence + The Machine fame).
All in all, ‘Joanne’ is another reinvention for the artist formerly known as Mother Monster, albeit with one with a pointed emphasis on her voice and the songs, instead of the gimmicks that have become her trademark. ‘Joanne’ and its accompanying visuals and campaign, feature no disco sticks, neon hair, or Venus seashell bikini outfits; instead everything is stripped back, doused liberally in Seventies-style rock Americana, perhaps as a nod to the past she is exploring. The songs themselves are solid enough, and while the album may lack some of the sugary hooks or electronic squiggles fans are used to, it’s sure to become one of her more longlasting albums to date.
In each of her albums, she has revealed a facet of herself for inspection and revelation – ‘The Fame’ showed the glittery ambition, ‘The Fame Monster’ her anxieties and fears, ‘Born This Way’ her drive for equality and compassion, and ‘ARTPOP’ her goals for artistic exploration, her pain, and her desires for performance and transformation. This time around, however, there are few if any masks or garish outfits to hide behind. In naming the album ‘Joanne’, she has bared her soul, her family, and perhaps her truest self to date. In ‘Joanne’, we might have just peered behind the curtain and seen the little Italian-American girl behind the Gaga herself.