by NICK BUCHANAN
When Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" topped the charts just shy of eight years ago, it was a pioneer of the popular music standards to come, irreversibly implementing electronic dance music into the pop landscape. Hand-in-hand with Britney Spears circa Circus revival and the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga ushered in an era of domination for synth-driven club music on the Billboard Hot 100 that opened the door for acts like Kesha and Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry. She was an unstoppable force in popular music then, but little did we know that less than a decade later, Lady Gaga would be done with both the Billboard charts and the high-energy pop music that she popularized.
Her fifth studio album is her baby: she protects it, she shields it, and she holds it close. She has taken to Twitter to flip the metaphoric bird to any nay-sayers to her newest musical direction, including The Chainsmokers and The New York Times' music critic Jon Caramanica, in 140 characters or less. She hasn't bothered with traditional promotion, opting for a short, intimate promotional tour fueled by a Bud Light sponsorship and a few radio interviews. There's a clear refusal to let this album become her biggest commercial success. While she traditionally has treated all of her albums with this mother-bird mindset, Joanne is different. It takes an unprecedented leap of faith, displaying a bold confidence that Lady Gaga can retain popularity – and the idiosyncrasies that set her apart – despite a complete change of venue, from dance club to dive bar.
Gaga's reaction aside, Caramanica wasn't out of line for referring to her baby as an overcorrection from the fluorescent playground that was ARTPOP. When her boldface electronic dance experimentation was met with lukewarm reception, she retreated to the arms of Tony Bennett as his singing-jazz-since-she-was-four partner-in-crime. And it worked: without the distractions, people saw the real talent within. So onward bound she went, abandoning the complex outfits and opting for elegance as she took to the small screen on American Horror Story: Hotel and to the awards show circuit with "Til It Happens to You," a traditional pop-rock track penned for campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground. And wouldn't you know it: it was still working. So in pursuit of continued success beyond the expectation of just another radio hit or two, Joanne refutes everything Gaga once was; it is as organic and as orthodox as she has ever been.
Of course, she's not the first artist of her caliber to break the walls of pop star expectations this year: Rihanna swerved expectations with Anti, making an unexpected turn towards her first album free of any clear-cut hits, and still struck success. And in hindsight, it was abrupt but natural progression: if the past few years have proven anything, it's that the demand for Gaga's generation of singles-heavy, pure-pop divas is pretty well dead. Existing crowds of fans carried the latest Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani efforts to moderate success, while the next line of pop girls (namely Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande) have worked urban touches into their pop tracks to stay on top. Gaga, though, has taken to the waters Rihanna already tested by delivering a relatively consistent, left-of-center body of work. But whereas Rihanna took to hazy R&B, Gaga has taken her own natural trajectory, throwing rock, country, and pop into a paint shaker and pouring out a gritty coat of backroads tavern aesthetic.
With Mark Ronson's rock and funk influences dominating any signs of BloodPop's 21st century handiwork throughout, Joanne doesn't even remotely exemplify the modern definition of pop music. Now, that's not to say rock 'n rodeo Gaga isn't incapable of the infectious hooks that made her famous; "A-Yo" competes with the best of them, and that "Tap down those boots while I beat around, let's funk downtown" ditty from her third-generation ode to self-servicing, "Dancin' in Circles," is unbelievably hypnotizing. But there are times that musicality takes the backseat in attempts to force the 'totally not pop' vibes and straightforward lyrical symbolism to resonate, especially on her country-leaning tracks. It's a shocking change of pace for Lady Gaga, whose back catalog is packed with thick forests of intricate, nearly incomprehensible metaphors. While it could be argued that her complex lyrical content was the fatal flaw of ARTPOP, this album may be her most two-dimensional: no references to Jeff Koons, hookers, or the planet Venus. Strange, yeah? It's actually a bit refreshing, if we're being honest.
Seeing that she rid herself of the lyrical (and most other) antics, it seems that Gaga knows what made people listen in the past year or two: the fact that she had a voice, and a powerful one, at that. Her focus here, though, becomes projection and support as inflection falls by the wayside. Spare the title track, where a lighter, nasally tone prevails, she rolls full-speed ahead – and that works quite well on amplified pop-rock tracks in the vein of "Diamond Heart" and "Perfect Illusion" – but at a few points in the road, her lead foot comes at a price. That flaw doesn't become any more obvious than on "Hey Girl," during which she carries a conversation with proven vocal siren Florence Welch, who manages to upstage Gaga thanks to conscious restraint of her maximalist tendencies. This sacrifice is a small one, however, considering the artistic growth otherwise.
A far stretch from the disco-glam, post-Bowie antics of The Fame, this album has no place in the discography of a Top 40 artist. But perhaps that's the point; although it is not what we all particularly expected, or maybe even wanted, from Lady Gaga, her career was never built on delivering material that fulfills expectations. After following her for this long, it's easy to parallel being a Gaga listener to being the parent of a stubborn, fickle-minded child: she does as she wishes, and we, the listening public, just have to accept and love her regardless of the phase she's in. But let's be glad that Gaga is a child with versatile talents, because she does stick the landing on this album. It has its imperfections –it's consistently loud and shows signs of some growing pains – but it's nothing if not raw, honest, and 100 percent Lady Gaga. (★★★★ out of five)
Joanne is available now under Interscope Records.