tue 23/05/2017

CD: Lady Gaga - Joanne | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Lady Gaga - Joanne

CD: Lady Gaga - Joanne

Are these pared-down, country-tinged arrangements a career junction or a wrong turn?

These are not rootsy songs, but sometimes rather rootless ones
A career in millinery: half-way between lobster and stetson

Where’s the beef? In exchanging the raw meat couture Lady Gaga wore to the 2010 MTV Awards for the leathery country sounds of her latest, fifth album, fans will be wondering if she’s lost her cutting edge. For a New Yorker of Italian descent, a country-tinged album is not a return to anything, but a strategic choice, and these are not rootsy songs, but sometimes rather rootless ones. There are many successful recent templates for young female singers who want to express their inner hoedown. The trouble for Gaga is that she has usually been the one creating the templates for others to attempt to follow.

The title track is a wistful personal interrogation, and is the most successful of the songs that announce her new direction explicitly. There’s elegant, finger-picking guitar, and a refrain that runs, “girl, where do you think you’re going?”, suggesting a self-doubt not previously associated with Gaga, as well as a religiosity (both heaven and angels make an appearance) that she’s tended to keep private. It returns on “Angel Down”, which also doubles as a rather timid political anthem, the line “It’s chaos, where are our leaders?” making me wonder for a moment if Gaga was making a late bid for the GOP nomination. She does public anguish rather convincingly.

It’s not exactly beautiful, but it’s powerful and very distinctive

“Million Reasons”, written by Nashville veteran Hillary Lindsey, and performed with Florence Welch, contains the new album’s most obviously country sound. Welch does the quavering, injured-lover country phrasing much better than Gaga, who tends to honk slightly, as if she’s managing a street-market fire-sale. It’s another hint that country is probably not where she should be focusing her talent; her voice suited “Bad Romance” perfectly. In fact, Gaga’s grainy, slightly nasal, even a little trombone-like voice stands out again and again from the ever-so-slightly bland arrangements. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it’s powerful and very distinctive. It needs writing that works with these strengths.

These are almost all inoffensive and very listenable songs. If you’re undertaking a long car journey, they will entertain the whole family, and the driver won’t be tempted to take their hands off the wheel and pump their fists, as they would have for several of her previous hits. “Joanne”, the song, shows us she can do intimate, acoustic and confessional; Joanne the album suggests she needs more good ideas before it becomes a successful junction in her career.

@matthewwrighter

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