Between an entire album of jazz covers with Tony Bennet and an award-winning performance in American Horror Story, Lady Gaga’s career has taken some interesting turns since the mixed critical reception of 2013’s Artpop. Gaga’s willingness to branch out and take risks continues with the release of her latest album, Joanne.
It is obvious before even listening to any of the music that Joanne is intended to be Gaga’s “mature and grown up” album, in the vein of Madonna’s Ray of Light or Panic! At the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. Between the stripped down album art, the handwritten title of the track “Joanne” on the track list, and the choice to release the piano-heavy ballad “Million Reasons” as the second single before the album’s release, Gaga has made it clear that this is an album where she intends to share a lot of growth and exploration.
The result is an intimate, authentic encounter with Gaga where she is not scared to be vulnerable and honest. The album gives the impression of hanging out with Gaga at a bar, having a beverage and chatting about life (and maybe getting up for a round or two of karaoke). It is perhaps appropriate that the album’s recent promotional tour was conducted in a series of American dive bars, as opposed to more conventional venues and arenas, as the atmosphere of intimacy and honesty drive the majority of the album.
If Born this Way had you cheering and jumping with the raw power that Gaga can deliver, Joanne will make you sit back, reflect and think about life in a way that is equally raw, but in a different way. Either in the context of hardships and struggles (“Joanne,” “Angel Down,” “Sinner’s Prayer”) or in the moments of joy that get people through the week (“Grigio Girls,” “John Wayne”), Gaga is trying to express a journey through life that listeners can relate to and understand.
Gaga has never been afraid to tackle controversial or political content, and this dedication to speaking up about the unspoken continues with Joanne. Gaga has stated that “Angel Down,” one of the album’s most standout tracks, was written about Trayvon Martin and the state of racism in the United States, and MTV cites her asking “how could I not say something?”
From the political to the personal (the title track is a tribute to Gaga’s aunt, a beloved family member who passed away before Gaga was born), Joanne shows a level of sophistication and stripped-down intimacy that mark this album as a unique and valuable contribution to Gaga’s oeuvre. However, the Gaga of earlier albums never completely vanishes; this album is not a case of her “changing into a new artist” as much as it is Gaga growing and showing a different side of herself, while making it clear that she is still the Lady Gaga fans know and love.
One of the album’s strengths in this respect is its genre fluidity, and Gaga’s ability to shift back and forth between influences from many different styles allows it to balance this experimentation and growth with a firm dedication to Gaga’s roots. The country influence in many of the songs calls back to Born this Way’s “You and I,” and despite its stripped down quality, the album still plays with arena-ready anthemic elements in songs like the lead single “Perfect Illusion.”
I would recommend Joanne to anyone who wants to explore this new side of Gaga, or to anyone who enjoys Gaga’s previous work and is willing to try out something a bit different.
-Steven Greenwood, Brock Press Alumni