Saturday, 19 November 2016

Gaga's back

Lady Gaga's new album, Joanne, is a strong contender for album of the year I'd say. We are in November after all, it's relatively safe to say these things...

From the ferocious, autobiographical, high octane pop of 'Diamond Heart' through to the haunting 'Angel Down', this is a typically sophisticated pop album from Gaga, one which draws strongly on the imagery and sounds of Americana.

Take the twangy guitar samples mixed in with crunchy beats of 'A-Yo', or the much more atmospheric American Gothic balladry of 'Sinners Prayer', the more subtle country power balladry of 'Million Reasons' (which, thankfully, emerges more 'Don't Toss Us Away' than 'Stand By Your Man') or - best of all - the full on berserk cowboy baiting pop blitzkrieg that is 'John Wayne'. This song is either the best Shania Twain piss take ever or a divine marriage of Americana and glitchy electro pop. And she makes it sound effortless and so, so easy...

Which is always the issue with pop, really: Gaga is full on pop, but below the surface, there have always been clever things going on.

There's a vague sense of unease in 'Diamond Heart', with it's lyrics of defiant go-go'ng on one hand, but the line "Some asshole broke me in, wrecked all my innocence" on the other, and vulnerability and tenderness in the lament for her dead aunt in 'Joanne', and then there is the powerful state of the nation dramatic pop opera that is 'Angel Down', which more than any of the other songs on this album hints at a disconnect with modern life.

There are songs to dance to here, none the least 'Diamond Heart', 'John Wayne', and the gritty electro moody minimalism of 'Dancin' In Circles', which sees Gaga touching herself "to pass the time" while muttering "Funk me downtown". There's also the surging, diamond hard pop of 'Perfect Illusion' and the boozy girls night in anthem that is 'Grigio Girls', an ode to the powers of friendship and Pinot Grigio, with a a suitably catchy sing a long chorus.

And then there is 'Hey Girl', Gaga's duet with Florence Welch. This is a slinky Prince and the Revolution style affair, which is structured almost like a phone conversation between the two of them. It has an agreeably positive message of female solidarity and, while not such an obvious musical link with the other songs on the album, it does work, with a real sense of collaboration rather than competition that enhances the message of the song.

The collaboration with Welch seems particularly apt when you consider that both women turned 30 this year, both felt the need to take some time off before starting work on their current albums, and both seem to have a strong sense of family, and absent family members, that influences their work on occasion.

While I would say that 'Hey Girl', 'Grigio Girls' and 'Sinners Prayer' are some of the strongest moments on here, it's the work tape version of 'Angel Down' that will reduce you to tears. While the finished version is haunting and elegiac, the work tape is much more stripped down, angrier, and grittier. It is very 2016, and it feels like the song to end the year on really, in so many ways, for so many reasons.

There is footage on YouTube of Gaga performing 'Angel Down' from a balcony at the final Hilary Clinton rally in early November, which adds an extra poignancy in many ways. If we take the year from November 2015 through to November 2016, we can see that it begins with France and ends with America. It feels no accident to me that my two favourite albums of that year are Chaleur Humaine and Joanne.

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