Lady Gaga has been struggling since the weird flop of her wonderfully outrageous album Artpop. Even now, listening to Artpop, it’s not totally clear why this was the record that caused her to fall from the pop world’s seemingly endless extension of grace regarding all her antics. However, it was one of those off-the-cliff moments, and Gaga has been simmering on the back burner ever since, releasing jazz standard albums, standing up for victims of sexual assault (something she’s continued to do, which says more about her as a person than any song ever will), and quietly plotting her return to the limelight.
Today, that return went from string of singles and weepy New York Times interviews to the album itself, and Joanne is not the comeback album we expected. Stereogum asks if, perhaps it is already a failure, and compares it to Sam’s Town — which we all know was unfairly maligned during the time it came out because of a similar unwieldy media narrative.
Personally, I was really skeptical about this album. Famous white men have already weighed in — Patrick Carney and The Chainsmokers both absolutely despite her new work. I’m not sure if they really mean it, or just know that sh*tting on other artists is what will get you attention in our brave new world of social media warfare.
But, none of these things are really about Joanne. Last night I read another review that was, and damn, if it didn’t sound like this is an album I’d really love. So this morning I threw it on and began listening, and man, this is really good record. It’s way better than Ariana Grande’s sloe-eyed EDM burnout Dangerous Woman by a mile, and Ariana is my favorite pop star right now. The biggest reference to my ear is Springsteen, but instead of trying to reach his sky-scraping heights, Gaga dwells more in his lows, incorporating Americana riffs and her tremendous alto voice to sell the songs. (Funny thing, as Steven Hyden recently pointed out, the biggest touchstone on Sam’s Town was Springsteen too.)
And, these songs are worth selling too, with good hooks and great choruses that work on both the ballads and the more upbeat pop songs. They tell stories and touch on taboo or frivolous topics, but they all come out in the voice of one person, something that stands out immediately in an era in which huge pop albums have struggled with maintaining cohesion. Even “Perfect Illusion” fits in when you hear it in context, it’s part of the massive, sparkling disillusionment that the album confronts, and seeks to replace with low-tempo, weepy ballads that maintain huge pop underpinnings, like the Billy Joel-worthy “Angel Down.” He’d also probably love “Just Another Day,” and I think the fact that Springsteen and Joel feel like bigger references here than any other traditional pop figures points toward Gaga’s intentions: She’s finally embracing her New York roots.
After listening a couple times, my biggest takeaway is that if I block everything out of my mind, and just focus on this record it would probably be one of my favorites in 2016. If I didn’t know about Artpop, or the often obnoxious oversell that Gaga can get into, I’d listen to Joanne and want to learn more about the artist who made it. For a long time my biggest critique of Lady Gaga is that she had no idea who she is and what she stands for, she could write a monster pop song, and even be a role model to her adoring fans, but she hadn’t released a real thesis about what she wants her legacy to be.
The fact that this was the narrative that dogged Joanne — it was her real self — made me disbelieve she really meant it; listening to the record, however, revealed that she really did. I wouldn’t call this a comeback, because it sounds like an artist who had to go as low and off course as she did to figure out who she wanted to be. But I encourage you to listen to it without that baggage, too, just listen to it like it’s the first album from an artist you’ve never heard before. Because, in a way, I think it is.
Joanne is out now via Interscope.