You have to respect the intent, anyway. Lady Gaga ascended to transcendent stardom by ditching anything that anyone could ever consider authentic in music, going full Euroclub glam-disco and stripping away all subtlety from her operatic oontz-oontz bangers. Along the way, she perfected a deliriously busy sort of all-surface persona, slamming us in the face over and over with weird imagery, to the point where none of her pop peers had a hope in hell of keeping up. She built a great lane for herself, but it wasn’t sustainable. And when she tried to go all-in on the imagery, to push everything even further over the top, she suffered her first real L, bricking hard with 2013’s Artpop. So she went off on a sort of in-plain-sight sabbatical, recording a standards album with Tony Bennett and acting on American Horror Story. Even when she took a step back from the spotlight, then, she was essentially living out a theater kid’s dream life.
And now, older and more callused, she’s finally stepping back into a full-time pop-stardom role again, but she’s doing it while flying a banner of real music, of all the stuff she once theatrically rejected. This time, she’s got an NPR-rock dream team behind her: Mark Ronson, Kevin Parker, Josh Homme, Florence Welch, Father John Misty, Beck. The only real dance-pop ringer in her stable this time is BloodPop, a guy who’s made big hits for Justin Bieber but who also came up alongside Grimes. It’s a fully switched-up aesthetic, and it’s also a pretty stunning collection of talent. But there are a couple of huge problems: Nobody can seem to agree on what kind of record they’re all making together, and Gaga herself doesn’t have any business fucking around with most of these sounds.
Consider, if you will, “Perfect Illusion,” the album’s lumbering faceplant of a lead single. This should be an exciting song, all these big names from different corners of the pop-music universe working together with one of the biggest stars in the world, everyone trying to create a towering anthem. Instead, it’s a stapled-together mess, its trudge-rock riffage clashing with its synthetic sparkle and its hamhanded arena-funk, Gaga howling over all of it like she can will it to glory. She can’t. It sounds like the 2016 version of one of those ’80s blues-rock songs that you’d hear on the soundtrack to a movie like Lethal Weapon. During that era, all these ’60s rock veterans were trying to bring back the grit of the music they grew up playing, but they were trying to force it to coexist with pillowy Richard Marx synths and smooth-jazz sax tootles, and it never worked. Here, it’s like Gaga is trying to force ’80s roadhouse-rock into a circa-now club-pop template, and everything just smashes into everything else in the most unpleasant ways. Gaga puts everything she has into her vocal performance, but the way the song is put together does her no favors. So she ends up sounding like drama-class Pat Benatar. It’s just sad.
It goes on from there. “Come To Mama” has all of Mark Ronson’s retro Dap-Kings horn-honks and none of the playfulness of his best productions. “John Wayne” is an awkward flirt with American iconography — “Blue collar and a red-state treasure / Love junkie on a three-day bender” — and an even more awkard collision between glo-stick EDM and jukebox-musical riff-rock. “Hey Girl” is an adult-contempo blue-eyed soul sing-off on which Gaga tries to match Florence Welch at her own game and absolutely gets buried. “Sinner’s Prayer” should serve as final proof that Father John Misty-style self-conscious verbosity will never sound anything but forced from Gaga. On paper, “Dancin’ In Circles” should be something special: Gaga and Beck write a masturbation anthem together! In practice, though, it feels like Gaga’s halfassed stab at dancehall-pop, which is the last thing she should be attempting. Every once in a while, those aesthetic collisions pay off, as on “A-YO,” which plays like laser-focused revisionist sock-hop music. But this is an album pulling itself in way too many directions at once, one that never has the focus or discipline to commit to a vision or an idea.
Gaga fares a lot better on the ballads. Even at her most disco-dazed, Gaga’s always had serious grit in her voice, and she exploited that quality best on 2011’s Born This Way, when she jammed arena-rock signifiers into her dance-pop and made the styles-clash work for her. Her best moments then — still, to my ears, her best moments ever — were lighters-up power-ballad howlers like “Edge Of Glory” and “Yoü And I,” grand-stage belters that came instinctively to her. None of the ballads on Joanne hit those heights, but they all come close enough. “Million Reasons,” co-written with Nashville country pro Hillary Lindsey, is the sort of big, stormy, bluesy Melissa Ethridge-esque howler that fits better with Gaga’s whole style than all the album’s rock/dance hybrids. The title track, dedicated to a free-spirit family member who died young before Gaga was born, is among the most restrained things that Gaga has ever recorded, and it has a graceful lilt to it. “Angel Down,” which Gaga says she wrote about Trayvon Martin even if the song itself never makes that point explicit, is a grand, tremulous wailer. Those songs all point to a way forward for Gaga. She can become a big, throaty ballad-singer whenever she wants. God knows she’s got the voice for it.
So: She can do grimy, scratchy old-school tough-it-out balladry. And she can go back to her roots and make glossy, eyeball-destroying Eurodisco. But she can’t do both at the same time, and that’s what she tries to do for way too much of Joanne. Really, the album that Joanne most recalls, for me, is the Killers’ noble 2006 failure Sam’s Town. That’s the album where Brandon Flowers, a born fabulist just like Gaga, attempted to fuse what he was already doing with heartland-rock and mythic Americana. It didn’t work, and it came out sounding like a horrible muddle. But Flowers at least got one soaring classic, “When You Were Young,” out of the experiment. Gaga didn’t even get that. She got a couple of pretty-good songs. For someone with ambitions this grand, that counts as a crashing failure. Intent is one thing. Execution is another.
Joanne is out 10/21 on Interscope/Streamline. Stream it below.