In many ways, Lady Gaga has always been a performance artist posing as a pop act these last few years. On her newest studio effort, “Artpop,” out Nov. 11, she concentrates more on the art, than the pop, and the album is worse for it.
The majority of “Artpop” is a meditation on fame, culture, fashion, sex, drugs, music and pop art (hence the Jeff Koons cover). That high-flying intersection may be where Lady Gaga lives now, but it”s feels like the end of lonely street. Largely cold and soulless (at least until the final few songs)-whether from the clinical, loud, electronic production or from Lady Gaga”s often mannered delivery and stilted lyrics -”Artpop” is for her the Little Monsters who loudly embrace their outside status buffeted by the shelter of Momma Monster”s umbrella. In some ways, Lady Gaga can be applauded for making an album that in no way aims for radio acceptance (though first single, “Applause” found it), but it”s going to be a hard sell to her mainstream fans.
Even when she”s poking fun at herself, as she does on “Mary Jane Holland”: “I know at the moment they think I”m a mess/but its alright because I”m rich as piss,” she sings, there”s a part that rings true. She used to be one of us, but now she is one of them, even if she wants to joke that she”s not. And don”t get me started on the pretension of having an album title in all caps.
Some of Lady Gaga”s biggest hits, like “Bad Romance,” or “Paparazzi” have featured different patches of songs stitched together, bonded by her mannered vocals. Along the beats or weird synths, there was usually a melodic chorus that glued the whole song together. That happens far less often here and the result is an collection of songs that sounds intentionally cacophonous and chaotic. She may be saying exactly what she wants to about the state of pop culture, but that doesn”t mean we”ll want to listen.
Working with a phalanx of producers here, from DJ White Shadow to Zedd, David Guetta, will.i.am, RedOne, Madeon and even Rick Rubin, what Lady Gaga could have really used here was a great editor to craft her ambition a little more tightly.
Track-by-track review of “Artpop”:
Aura: The opening salvo, also heard in “Machete Kills” is a campy, fun invitation to go on this trip with Lady Gaga and see her naked underneath the covers. The shape-shifting song opens with a sultry voice over by Gaga that recalls Shirley Bassey before switching to a kitschy, synth-laden, stuttering vocal portion. Eventually it moves into a catchy sung portion, where she questions if you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura. Rinse and repeat. Final word: Artpop. Welcome to the album. GRADE: B
Venus: Go on an interplanetary journey with the goddess of love in this trippy, EDM number around the planets. Sample lyric: “Uranus, don”t you know my ass is famous?” There”s a great disco tune in here centered around the “When you touch me I die…This could be love” chorus, but it gets buried in the space mission. Fun fact: “Venus” samples Zombie Zombie”s cover of Sun Ra”s “Rocket Number Nine.” GRADE: B
G.U.Y.: From Venus, we go to Eros, Greek god of love. “Let me be the girl under you that makes you cry,” she sings in this dancey track that features a refrain redolent, but less catchy, than “Bad Romance. She”s still on her space travels, but this track feels far more weighed down by its clunkiness. GRADE: C
“Sexxx Dreams:” She”s a nasty girl on this hypnotic track. Her boyfriend is out of town, so she”s left to masturbate and think of her lust object. Hey, at least it has a real bass line. GRADE: C
“Jewels N” Drugs” featuring T.I., Too $hort and Twista: Lady Gaga largely cedes the spotlight to the three rappers here on this hip-hop industrial track. It”s fun to hear them share the mic in a strange bedfellows kind of way and Twista”s trademark fast delivery is a kick. GRADE: B
“MANiCURE”: Her aggressive vocal, like Annie Lennox”s in “I Want A Man” crossed with Joan Jett, drives this pulsating track, one of “Artpop”s” most accessible, about a serial killer. It shifts into industrial dance at the end, but still finishes strong. GRADE: B+
“Do What U Want” featuring R Kelly: The least Lady Gaga-like track on here is pop dance track with an ’80s feel. Bolstered by a strong vocal by Lady Gaga, it still feels relatively generic, as she proclaims, “do what you want with my body,” though you can”t have her heart. Whether it”s a straight come-on or a retort to her detractors who commented cruelly on her weight fluctuations, it”s the odd man out on “Artpop.” GRADE: B-
“ARTPOP”: The title track serves as the album”s thesis statement. Under the guise of a romantic relationship, she wants to see if art and pop can live together in this sinewy, mid-tempo track. “Artpop can be anything,” she says. GRADE: B-
“Swine”: Opening with vocal hiccups before swelling into a strong vocal performance by Gaga, the track is a full-on dance track that makes one thing perfectly clear, Lady Gaga doesn”t think a lot of you. “I know, I know you want me/you”re just a pig inside a human body… squealer, squealer, squealer, you”re so disgusting.” She could be talking about the tabloid press, she could be talking about men. Who knows? One of the album”s more interested tracks. GRADE: A-
“Donatella”: Lady Gaga”s homage to Donatella Versace, that pokes fun at the shallow word of fashion, including bulimia and spray tans. “I”m a rich bitch/I”m the upper class,” may be the ultimate compliment to someone of this station, but for the rest of us, it plays like too much insider information. The trap-influenced dance break could be fun live. GRADE: D
“Fashion!”: The piano opening sounds so welcoming, that it”s all the more jarring when the electronic clash comes back in. Lady Gaga sounds great as she sings about wanting a love that”s not material, but the song drowns in its own pretension. GRADE: C
“Mary Jane Holland:” Lady Gaga singing in an exaggerated mannered tone, extols the virtue of Mary Jane, hanging in Amsterdam, and generally looks at the fame game. It”s a driving, throbbing track that includes call-outs and psychedelic turns. In other words, it”s more like a bad acid trip than a mellow high. GRADE: B-
“Dope”: Lady Gaga at the piano, with a little electronic, accompaniment, is an absolutely unbeatable combination (especially given Rick Rubin”s rumored production). This is a show stopper of a love song, as she declares, pushing her powerful voice, that she “needs you more than dope.” Her voice trails off a cappella at the end of the ballad in a tragic, resolute way. GRADE: A
“Gypsy”: A piano-based ballad about living the gypsy life that quickly goes into a bouncy rocker, with the same drive as “Marry the Night.” “I don”t want to be alone forever/but I can be alone tonight,” she sings as she compares herself to “The Wizard of Oz”s” Dorothy. It”s Lady Gaga at her poppiest and it”s one of “Artpop”s” few songs, where, like the Tin Man, she finds her heart. GRADE: A
“Applause”: “Artpop”s” first single is propulsive, driving track is a layered, dance twirler about how Gaga lives for, you guessed it, “Applause.” Opening with a staccato beat (a la “Paparazzi”) as Lady Gaga sings in a very mannered, dramatic fashion, “I stand here waiting for you to beat the gong/to crash the critics saying, ‘Is it right or is it wrong”?,” “Applause” has been in the top 10 for weeks. GRADE: B+