Author: Briana Ellison
Three years after the release of her highly underrated fourth album “ARTPOP,” almost a year from her acting debut in “American Horror Story: Hotel,” a month and a half after the release of lead single “Perfect Illusion,” three weeks after the beginning of a series of dive bar performances and one day before she graced the stage of “Saturday Night Live,” reigning pop heavyweight Lady Gaga returned on Friday, Oct. 21, with the release of her fifth studio album “Joanne.”
The title comes from one of Lady Gaga’s middle names, which is also the name of her late aunt, Joanne Germanotta, who passed away at the age of 19 from Lupus. Gaga has always been very open about her aunt’s battle, how she wishes she had the opportunity to meet her and how this family tragedy has influenced her music over the years. This album, however, with the moniker and mix of pop, rock, blues and country influences, is without a doubt one of Lady Gaga’s most honest and perfect albums to date. Which is saying a lot since every single one of her albums has been a flawless masterpiece.
The opening song is “Diamond Heart,” which starts off slow with a bluesy guitar but soon features Gaga’s prominent and powerful vocals as she hauntingly sings over the guitar before a single drum beat joins her. The lyrics are achingly raw; they hit me — read, punched me — right in my emotions by the end of the first verse. The song picks up as the chorus, featuring more guitars, a heavier drum and a growing synth beat that perfectly complement but don’t overshadow her vocals. “I might not be flawless but you know I’ve got a diamond heart,” Lady Gaga sings as she expertly navigates an opening song that sets the stong tone for the rest of the album.
“Diamond Heart” melds perfectly into the second song, “A-YO,” which was premiered on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at Lady Gaga’s first dive bar performance in Nashville, Tennessee. The song is reminiscent of early rock music with a country twang, with a clapping beat and rambling guitar chords that follow her sharp vocals that stutter-step over the dance-inducing lyrics. The feeling and want to dance builds as the chorus hits, with catchy and smart harmony. The bridge features a beautiful guitar chord and her clean, full-range vocals. “A-YO” is the perfect song to go with anything: your daily routine, your work and a road trip.
The third song is the titular “Joanne,” a direct letter from Lady Gaga to her late aunt. Gaga has been open about how her aunt’s passion for life and individuality influenced her stage persona and presence as an artist, and their relationship, though never manifested in reality as Gaga was born after Joanne’s death, is put to the forefront in this song. With an acoustic guitar and echoey vocals, Gaga puts on a 1960s blues vibe as she sings directly to her aunt, wondering where she is and why she didn’t stay. The song is emotional and heart-wrenching, detailing not only Gaga’s yearning to know her aunt, but the void that was left in her family after Joanne’s death. Though sad, the song is also positive, with Gaga promising to keep her head up and continue on. The song is so pure and emotional that there aren’t enough words to accurately portray “Joanne” and give it the justice and praise it deserves, but it’s perfectly well done.
Next is “John Wayne,” the transition song that picks up the pace of the album (which was already pretty fast in the first place). It begins with Lady Gaga detailing how much she loves cowboys over a high-stepping synth beat that soon evolves into a slightly slower bass chord with Gaga’s smokey vocals. The song details Lady Gaga’s frustration with the “John Wayne”-type men she’s encountered and gravitates toward, yearning for something more substantial. “John Wayne” is definitely one of my favorite songs, one I know I’ll be singing at the top of my lungs tomorrow in the car, one that I definitely relate to and showcases the best parts of Gaga as an artist: her clean vocals, her amazing range and her ability to produce a song with perfect musical composition.
Following is “Dancin’ In Circles,” a quick song that goes directly into its obvious dance beat, a song that’ll be familiar to those who know Lady Gaga’s most well-known songs that feature dance beats. The best part of this song is the latin-infused beats that pepper the background combined with the slight rock influences. Gaga’s voice ranges from low and scratchy for most of it to high-pitched and flawless during the bridge, as “Dancin’ In Circles” — a song that has the listener doing just that — expertly shows of her extensive vocal range.
Lead single “Perfect Illusion” marks the halfway point of the album. A song I’ve already touted as flawless (because it is), it — along with “Joanne” — is the heartbeat of the album. The musical composition is inspiring, the lyrics are relatable, raw and poignant, and Lady Gaga’s vocals are simultaneously strong and stinging. I could go on and on about my feelings about this song, but essentially, as its title imples, it’s perfect.
The second half of the album begins with “Million Reasons,” another song that was premiered when Lady Gaga began her dive bar tour in Nashville, Tennessee. “Million Reasons” fits in perfectly with the staple ballads of her past albums, such as “Dope,” “You and I,” “Speechless” and “Brown Eyes.” The music in this song is equal in perfection to “Perfect Illusion,” with an acoustic guitar and haunting but simple piano as Gaga navigates the emotional and lonely lyrics of “Million Reason’s” isolationist nature. The song is another highlight of the album because if there’s one thing Lady Gaga is good at — and there are many — a heart-wrenching ballad is probably at the top of the list.
“Sinner’s Prayer,” opening with a rock-country twang that reminds me of the theme song to the TV show “True Blood.” The song however, is stomping and beautiful, with Lady Gaga’s deep vocals and a lyrical promise to break only one heart: the unnamed object of her affection. “Sinner’s Prayer” also deals directly with her family and relationships, as she name-drops her father (her late aunt’s brother) and her younger sister who Gaga is very close to. Besides “Joanne,” “Sinner’s Prayer” is the most transparent song on the album, with Gaga singing about disappointment, longing and her steadfast individuality, all in the hopes of maintaining her identity and honesty in her relationship.
The ninth song, “Come To Mama” is another rock-country hybrid. With a deep bass chord and lightly dancing guitar-synth mash up. Lady Gaga, a very outspoken advocate for equality, sings about just this: “there’s gonna be no future if we don’t figure this out,” she says, suggesting that everyone pull together and avoid telling each other how to live. “Come to Mama,” with it’s rousing saxophone section and uniting lyrics, Gaga has mastered what I believe to be one of the most powerful and reassuring anthems for the marginalized populations in our society, showing them that they have allies and see them for who they are: human beings.
One of the most anticipated songs prior to the release of the album was Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine. The song, “Hey Girl,” doesn’t disappoint. Reminiscent of a jazzy disco song from the 1980s, Gaga and Welch have a call-and-response lyrical set up. “Hey Girl” pairs perfectly with “Come To Mama,” continuing the idea of empowerment and unity that the latter began. The synth beats and staccato piano pair well and reflect the vocals of the two artists: Welch’s voice is definitely more alternative and melds well with the synths, while Gaga’s is more pop and rock, complementing the piano.
Next is “Angel Down,” a song that begins with a synth beat that sounds like the ending notes of a winding down record player. Another ballad featuring Gaga on the piano and with contemplative lyrics, “Angel Down” is another song that touched me deeply. Lady Gaga’s voice is at its softest here, as the lyrics navigate trying to be an individual and doing the right thing in the midst of adversity and confusion. This song left me speechless, feeling emotional and not knowing exactly what to think in the best way possible. The deluxe version of this album also includes “Angel Down (Work Tape).” This is the more acoustic take on the song, featuring only the piano and an acoustic guitar. Gaga’s vocals are more gritty and loud on this take, showing the belting power behind it, whereas the original “Angel Down” showcases her control. In both versions, the beauty and sentiment of the song overpower the other elements.
The penultimate song is “Grigio Girls.” This song is definitely rock-infused and introspective. The song seems to dispel Gaga’s fears, with a slow-burning message of acceptance and easing anxiety in the middle of a world that’s constantly chaotic. An anthem to her friends and her support system, the early-1970s guitar beat leads Lady Gaga on her mission to live her life and fight her battles as they come, refusing to overextend herself to people who aren’t worth it.
Lady Gaga always makes a point of having strong songs end her albums, whereas other artists tend to have albums that end weakly. “Just Another Day” continues her tradition. An upbeat piano track that is lovingly optimistic, Lady Gaga infuses some 1960s wonder in the musical composition that features Brian Newman on trumpet and a shoutout to Mark Ronson, her longtime collaborator. “Just Another Day” is simple yet through its music and lyrics is able to detangle the complexity one encounters in everyday life, leaving you with the feeling that you can face your problems and responsibilities head on with the knowledge that you can overcome them. This outlook spreads to Gaga herself: the song seems to be introspective, easing the fears she had regarding her follow-up to “ARTPOP” and its reception, her own (solidified) place in the pop universe and her own relationship fears. On an album that explores all the realms of her life and the issues that are important to her, “Just Another Day” is the perfect closer to the wondrous “Joanne.”
Overall, I give “Joanne” a 10/10. Yes, you could say I’m biased because Lady Gaga is my favorite individual artist but my rating has more to do with the fact that “Joanne” is, in fact, flawless. Gaga took everything she knew: her extensive musical knowledge, influences and mastery, her excellent songwriting, her vocal prowess, her trials, tribulations and emotions and poured them into this album. She always strives for perfection and on this album she definitely achieved it. Every note, harmony and beat is thought out and played so that it fits what she’s trying to say. Every song has a message and every message is honest and punches you in the gut when you least expect it. Lady Gaga and “Joanne” are heavyweights that should never be underestimated.
MY RECOMMENDED TRACKS: Diamond Heart, John Wayne, Sinner’s Prayer, Come To Mama, Angel Down