Lady Gaga released her fifth studio album, Joanne in October 2016. However, thanks to her brand new Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, interest has sparked back to the album, which has set the stage for this review that might just be a few months overdue.
That’s alright, though, because it doesn’t matter when you’re listening to Joanne because its themes are timeless. Stepping away from the electropop we've known and loved for years, Gaga brings slight country and soft rock influences to Joanne, a very personal album that delves into the subjects of love, loss, and finding yourself.
There’s a healthy mix of emotional and entertaining tracks, and ironically, the ones that stand out are the most simplistic ones. “Diamond Heart” is gilded, and a fine choice to open the album. The catchy beat and strong vocals disguise the heavy lyrics describing the blood, sweat, and tears Gaga put into chasing her own American Dream. This track is a statement, letting the listeners know that Gaga is back, spirited as ever, and although she’s not serving straight pop anymore, her work is still carefully crafted, yet something you can dance to. She’s putting herself out there, and she wants you to love this album. Truth be told, it’s hard not to enjoy this song, which is best described by its lyrics, “I may not be flawless but you know I’ve got a diamond heart”.
Continuing on with Joanne's theme of musical vulnerability is the title track. "Joanne" is dedicated to Gaga's aunt who died at age nineteen. The uncharacteristic acoustic guitar and soft singing make for a beautiful tribute, evoking powerful emotions in the listener. Although the inspiration is tragic, the song itself is bittersweet and hopeful. Similarly, "Grigio Girls" deals with the imminent loss of one of Gaga's closest friends, Sonja Durham (who was battling Stage 4 breast, brain and lung cancer at the time, but sadly passed away earlier this year). Instead of focusing on the pain, Gaga wrote about all the good times she had with Sonja throughout the years, reminiscing on how lucky she was to have known her. These encompass the main theme of the album, personal growth through loss.
"Million Reasons", was the first single off of Joanne, straightforwardly describing the sad truth of loving someone who hurts you. The simple background mix of guitar and piano, combined with soulful powerhouse vocals make for a powerful ballad. Authentic, but not preachy, these tracks are the heart of Joanne by being incredibly poignant and endearing.
Besides really unpacking her personal life, this album slides in some fervent social commentary. “Come To Mama” is her overarching declaration, proclaiming that society really needs love and unity right now, and music is a powerful tool to help make that happen. “Hey Girl” features another vocal powerhouse, Florence Welch, and has a clear positive message, urging girls to support each other instead of tearing each other down. Lastly, “Angel Down” is, in my opinion, the most powerful song on this album. It doesn’t quite fit in with Joanne’s theme of metamorphosis, but it’s a moving social and political statement that stands out all on its own. Prompted by the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and speaking on the Black Lives Matter movement in general, Gaga delivers a stirring narrative about the shock and despair that comes along with recurring tragedy and leaders who are still in the face of it. Urban art with a melody, “Angel Down” is heartbreaking and thought-provoking.
Although Joanne is packed full of heavy emotional material, there’s also a fair share of light dance hits, like “A-YO”, “Perfect Illusion”, and “Dancin’ In Circles”, which are sure to win over even the most nostalgic fan. “John Wayne”, for instance, is energetic and slightly twisted, with the classic Gaga mark of singing of a dreamy guy under a general pseudonym (Past hits “Judas” and “Alejandro”, anyone?).
Laying somewhere in the middle is the end track that ties everything together. A funky intro and a reminiscing of Gaga's longtime friendship with producer Mark Ronson, "Just Another Day" is cute, lighthearted, and very special. This is the perfect closing track because it goes full circle, all the way back to Gaga's childhood years. This contrast illustrates her growth and reminds us of the factors in her life that went into crafting this beautiful album.
Gaga has been on the music scene for almost a decade now, and it almost feels like we've grown up alongside her. She's traveled far from her first albums, all about fame, sex, religion, and individualism. Her music was so new, edgy, and occasionally controversial- Gaga gave us something we hadn't seen in a long time and delivered it to us via mainstream radio, and that's what made her early career so wildly successful. But what Joanne is all about is her deviation from this. Through fresh new lyrics and a raw, passionate sound, this album allows us to explore a new side of her that for years, had been hidden by elaborate Alexander McQueen outfits and sharp Egyptian eyeliner. This poignant album serves a very clear purpose: to allow Gaga to embrace her personal transformation and let herself really be vulnerable on record. She lays it all out; unapologetically revealing things about her family, her friendships, her secrets, and most importantly, the person she is now.