The last time that Lady GaGa released a solo record ("Cheek to Cheek" notwithstanding), it was the divisive album "ArtPop." It was a highly sexual, materialistic ride through glamour culture and fame; all themes that she had been exploring over her career. While the hooks were there, it could be read as an identity crisis, or taking the celebrity debutante shtick to its ridiculous extents. Whatever the case may be, her years in between have been met with reinvention that included winning a Golden Globe for her acting on American Horror Story, and an Oscar nomination for the campus rape song "Till It Happens to You." With so much experience in the past three years, how has Lady GaGa changed on "Joanne"? If anything, she's taken away the shtick and left the earnestness for a personal record sure to revive her career.
The title "Joanne" comes from the singer's middle name. In the cheap sense of naming an album after yourself, it is meant to suggest that this album is a part of her. At the age of 30, she has already been performing for 15 years and has become one of the few new household pop stars of the past decade. It comes with good intentions, as she has mixed a career of wearing provocative (though not always sexually) outfits and singing about a variety of themes from female empowerment to the belief that love is a beautiful thing, no matter what condition that falls under. She has always been a gender fluid activist; a measure that has been seen in her ability to blend genres into catchy Top 40 pop tunes. However, it feels like "Joanne" is the first time that she's escaped the evocative showmanship and goes straight for the heart.
Much like her previous three solo albums, "Joanne" plays like a concept album. In an era dominated by conflicting political beliefs in American culture, the record feels prescient. "Come to Mama" and "Hey Girl" are the closest that the singer has gotten to performing direct message songs. With the subject of chaos at the center of both, the chorus seeks to unify everyone in a friendly hug. She comments about not understanding the hatred that the world faces and that only in joining together can things change. While the entire album does to some degree deal with the subject of love, it is here that the deeper intentions have become abundantly clear.
This is Lady GaGa's attempt to transcend genres and time. There is plenty of everything here in a way that presents a roadshow version of American music genres. A little country twang goes into "John Wayne" while "Perfect Illusion" is an inconspicuous riff on Annie Lennox. If one was really ambitious, they could determine where each last note was inspired from. However, it would ruin the fun, which the album has in spades. It creates a whirlwind of style that may lack the grandiose hooks and manufactured touch that made "Born This Way" such a phenomenal hit, but it's for the best. Lady GaGa has entered the next phase of her career, and it's likely to be the one that alters her career from the silly-looking pop star mantle that Sia took up, to a genuine artist that will be here 10, 20, maybe 30 years on.
For now, there are glimpses into her perceived maturity and genius. She is a master of juxtaposition, finding ways to apply rock and pop with classical styles. Her lyrics may still have a bit of pompous enthusiasm, such as on the opener "Diamond Heart," but it is a reflection of her growth as an artist. If "ArtPop" had any detraction, it's that it felt impersonal and played into themes of materialism that were a tad redundant. There was little empowering about it. It was catchy, but it will go down as a minor work. Her latest may be less assuming of its intents, but it makes the heavy use of ballads work far more effectively. As the gimmicky title suggests, this is part of Lady GaGa's soul. It may still be the surface-level subject of love, but rarely has she been this consistently earnest and candid.
Speaking as she is scheduled to play the Super Bowl in 2017, the chances of Lady GaGa's irrelevance growing seem slim. She may still be the showman that turn some off, but her new direction reflects a desire to focus more on craft and lyrics. There may be some generic hits like "A-Yo," but it can be forgiven when put alongside the more impressive hits of the album. This is an album meant to discuss love and tolerance with genre fluidity. It may seem like a cop out for Lady GaGa to not have one distinctive style, but it's never been her goal. She wants to be accepting of everyone. "Joanne" is further evidence that she's doing it right.
OVERALL RATING: 3.5 out of 5