Gaga balances her past with a grab for Middle America, pink cowboy hats and all.
Lady Gaga’s follow-up to her 2013 album Artpop is a stripped-down, artistically-varied collection of songs that simultaneously show a more personal side to her lyrics and music, while making an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.
The album’s 11 tracks retreat somewhat from the bolder, more “in-your-face” music and lyrics of her prior two albums (the 2014 collaboration with Tony Bennett Cheek to Cheek notwithstanding). This allows Gaga’s powerful voice to shine through where the production on Artpop and Born This Way often overpowered the vocals.
Lyrically speaking, this is a more personal album, with fewer social or political statements, with more potential mainstream appeal. Her previous two albums may have turned away some listeners who disagreed with her messaging, but Joanne plays it right down the middle with such broad statements as this line from “Come to Mama”:
So why do we gotta put each other down
When there’s more than enough love to g-g-go around?
You could argue this is her attempt at playing it safe lyrically, trying to chase after the listeners that her previous albums may have scared off.
Very much like Phil Collins’ solo career, Joanne’s down-the-middle approach seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way.
To that note, the over-the-top club bangers that Gaga has until now been known for are conspicuously absent from Joanne. The lead single “Perfect Illusion” hearkens back to these somewhat, but the rock elements show much more of an influence from Bruce Springsteen than German club music.
Gaga features much more of a blue-collar, classic-rock/country influence on this album, opting to switch out the drum machines and layers of synths for actual guitars and pianos. The instrumentation on “Diamond Heart”, “Sinner’s Prayer”, and the Prince-influenced “Hey Girl” are particular highlights.
Her vocals feature much more prominently across the album, notably eschewing the auto-tune and heavy production from her previous albums, giving it a more natural and authentic feel on each song. She even adopts a country twang in several songs, particularly on the title track Joanne. While it fits with the musical style, the accent does seem forced at times, and it can seem like just another outfit she’s trying on.
At the end of the day, Joanne shows off Gaga’s talent for crafting poppy, melodic songs, but it feels like a halfway-completed attempt to abandon the brash attitude of her last few albums. She is clearly using this album to change her image, while still providing long-time fans with the prerequisite hit singles.
As with all of her music, the album is catchy and a guaranteed radio favorite, but it feels unfocused. I would have liked to see her push the album further, but there’s always a risk involved with changing your sound. Just ask Metallica, circa 1996.
This album gets 3.5 out of 5 stars.