JOANNE is Lady Gaga’s most radical transformation

When she broke through in 2009, we were still capable of being shocked. But since Lady Gaga debuted, a lot more shocking and disturbing things have happened than seeing her in a meatdress or an egg or using religious imagery in a music video. So what is a Lady Gaga album if it isn’t meant to shock or challenge? If you ever asked yourself that question, her new album gives us an answer.

Lady Gaga arrived near the end of the last decade and filled a space that had been left wide open as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera transitioned from radio fixtures to pop legacy acts. Gaga made incisive electro-pop that layered hook on top of hook, and no one was able to escape its wake. In the next few years, artists ranging from Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj to Kesha to Miley Cyrus would try to out-Gaga Gaga, and while some did a better job than others, it was still clear who they were chasing. Adele’s 21 signaled a pop music sea change, with a strong voice and stripped down instrumentation becoming a tangible way to score top 40 hits, while Gaga’s electro-infused pop fell to the wayside. 2013’s Artpop showed that Gaga wasn’t really sure of her place in that pop landscape, and the album floundered without any strong thematic unity. But even then, she had songs with titles like “Sexxx Dreams” and “G.U.Y.” (aka Guy Under You) and lyrics like “Uranus / don’t you know my ass is famous?” Gaga’s latest, Joanne – out this Friday, October 21 – is her most conservative release, both musically and lyrically – forgoing traditional Gaga antics for something bordering on sincerity and honesty.  This leads to an album that’s Gaga’s most consistent from start-to-finish, her most manicured, streamlined set yet. It’s an album you never thought you wanted from Lady Gaga – one lacking most of the flair her past work displayed – and is all the more effective for skirting expectations. In an age where shock and awe is a daily occurrence, Gaga makes the radical change from her previous abstract, shrouded personas to something we can plainly see, something relatable.

“Sinner’s Prayer” is performed in the vein of 70s singer-songwriters, with western flourishes that fit perfectly in line with the southern stomp of early tracks “Diamond Heart” and “A-Yo.” She gets closest to The Fame/The Fame Monster territory on “Dancing In Circles,” a collaboration with Beck that finds Gaga singing about being “Up all night to rub the pain out.” That’s the one song likely to appeal to fans of that iteration of Lady Gaga, while the rest adheres to her new sonic template. Working with Mark Ronson, there’s a retro sheen over a majority of Joanne, a classic-sounding album paired with Gaga’s economic hooks. The title-track is one of Gaga’s finest ballads – just her, some atmospheric synths and a finger-plucked acoustic guitar, and a sincere ode to her late aunt. “I need you more than the angels do,” she sings, trying to fill the void.  On Joanne, she’s one of us. Just as confused and conflicted and frustrated, but willing to lead the way. “Tell me who hurt you,” she reaches out on the 50s doo-wop indebted “Come to Mama,” one of two collaborations with Father John Misty. “I wanna be there for you,” she sings a little later, and for the first time, we’re with her, too.

Joanne is out 10/21 via Interscope.

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