Lady Gaga isn’t as peculiar as she’d have you believe.
Granted, being the first celebrity, to my knowledge, to wear a dress that doubles as a literal hovering drone is more than odd, and that meat dress she wore in 2010 was the biggest waste of beef since Trump Steaks, but as an actual artist, there’s little she does in her music that could be described as adventurous. Lady Gaga carved out her sizable slice of the pop culture pie purely with the power of showmanship, but “Joanne” displays a stripped-down aesthetic for the New York singer, that once razor-sharp performance sensibility noticeably duller.
Like “Cheek to Cheek,” her banal duet album with Tony Bennett, “Joanne” departs from the traditional dance pop soundscape of “The Fame” and “Born This Way,” wearing proudly its soft rock influence. In some cases, this influence lends itself to moments of real inspiration, like the larger-than-life stadium anthem “Diamond Heart,” which opens the album, or the basic but lovely acoustic track “Joanne.”
At its best, the soft rock template allows Gaga to show off her impressive vocal range and a level of grit less present in past projects of hers. “Million Reasons,” an acoustic heartbreak ballad and one of the album’s singles, is the perfect example of this. The lyricism itself leaves something to be desired, with grade school rhymes like “You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go / You’re giving me a million reasons to quit the show,” but the song banks everything on the raw humanity of Gaga’s voice, and it wins that gamble.
At its worst, “Joanne” sounds like a cheap attempt to pander to whatever crowd will listen. The starry, glistening synth comprising the backdrop of lead single “Perfect Illusion” is pretty, but it sounds just too much like a slightly-improved variation of the “Just Dance” formula to stand out in any meaningful way, and “Dancin’ in Circles” is just “Alejandro” with an acoustic soft rock sheen.
“Hey Girl” is more or less a royalty-free “Bennie and the Jets” despite some great guest vocals from the incomparable Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. “A-YO” and “John Wayne,” meanwhile, host strands of obnoxious arena country DNA to the extent that they sound like little more than the soundtrack of a NASCAR promo. Gaga tries to end the album on a somber note with “Angel Down,” but the cloying instrumental finishes off Joanne more plebeian than powerhouse.
Lady Gaga has never been an inventive songwriter, but in the past she could get by on a sense of flair. Gone off “Joanne” is that flair, and its absence makes all of the little cracks and wrinkles in Gaga’s abilities all the more apparent. What we’re left with is an album that lacks any of the club appeal of Gaga’s earlier hits and isn’t good enough as a work of soft rock to make up for it.
In the chorus of “Million Reasons,” Gaga sings, “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away / But baby I just need one good one to stay.” Me too, Lady Gaga. Me too.