Music

First impressions: We go track by track on Lady Gaga’s stripped-back new LP ‘Joanne’

After a long period of anticipation and cryptic Instagram posts and a steady drip of singles, Lady Gaga’s fourth record, Joanne, is finally here. If the singles are any indication, Joanne is a far different listen than what we’ve grown to expect from the New Yorker. Thoroughly more acoustic, more country, and a lot more Stefani Germanotta and a lot less Gaga.

1. ‘Diamond Heart’

If there’s a song that encapsulates what Gaga is trying to do with Joanne – this is it. There’s the country inflected guitar, the punching drums, the screaming guitars, and a notable absence of anything ARTPOP related. Apart from a quick crescendo synth squeal in the pre chorus, this is basically a Neil Young rock song. It’s a fine introduction for those that come to Joanne with trepidation after hearing the first two singles. It’s still got that kickass Gaga chorus hook, but it’s being delivered in an entirely new way.

2. ‘A-YO’

Okay, this is fun. Just check that bumbling bass line that trips up the drums and gives the whole song its propulsion; it’s impossible not to move to this one. It’s a further slip down the roots rabbit hole, a little reminiscent of the latest efforts of Elle King. Just listen to that tangy guitar solo for gods sake, Gaga’s not screwing around here. Just start line dancing and forget that she ever released albums before this.

3. ‘Joanne’

Well then, someone was listening to a lot of Gillian Welch when they recorded this song. She’s deliberately pinched her vocals for this one in the verse – and the nasal quality does not suit it at all. Thankfully she opens up in the chorus. This was written about her aunt, who died of lupus when Gaga was 19, and it does contain some truly heart cracking lines: “I can love you even if I can’t see you any more.”

4. ‘John Wayne’

You know that Dixie Chicks classic ‘Goodbye Earl’? Yeah, this is Gaga’s ‘Earl’. There’s no way this could be more American, it’s called ‘John Wayne’ for fucks sake. The offbeat kick drum and hi-hats are positioned for the ultimate boot stomp quality. Josh Homme is responsible for that, and he’s also on hand here to lend some screaming QOTSA guitar licks.

5. ‘Dancin’ In Circles’

LEFT TURN PEOPLE. This is the first time in Joanne that it actually sounds like Gaga of old. There’s some air of the ‘Do What You Want’ backing from ARTPOP. On Joanne she’s tried to steer away from her usual topics of empowerment and belonging, but here she dips a toe back in: “dancing in circles/ feels good to be lonely”. Also: “Up all night trying to rub the pain out.” What a great line. Have you ever noticed that Gaga’s best songs tend to be about masturbation? No? Well now you know.

6. ‘Perfect Illusion’

Alright here we are. The first time I heard ‘Perfect Illusion’, I felt a little cheated. I wanted the Gaga of The Fame and Born This Way, not beefed up Kevin Parker pop rock. Then I listened again, then about 10 more times. After that – okay I actually was still not convinced, I’m not going to lie. But then again, isn’t this what Gaga has always done? Pushed at the boundaries of what we think we want? Make us listen and listen again? The key change as incongruous as they come, but it’s spectacular nonetheless. Lady Gaga has never really given a fuck about subtleties, after all.

7. ‘Million Reasons’

Gaga’s bangers have always gotten the most attention over the years, but ballads like ‘Speechless’ and ‘Dope’ are downright excellent songs that deserve way more attention. ‘Million Reasons’ is in a similiar vein, and so far it’s the best bloody song on the record. It’s the acoustic songs where Gaga’s musical theatre background comes bulldozing through, an epic hook being delivered by softly pressed piano chords. You can see the single stage light right beaming down right now, with Gaga poised with a gloved hand resting on the grand piano. The refrain: “I bow down to pray / I try to make the worst seem better /Lord, show me the way”, is crushing.

8. ‘Sinner’s Prayer’

This song had entirely played through before I registered that it was even doing so, so that gives you a pretty good indication of its quality. On the second listen, it’s not that bad – think of a cross between ‘Rawhide’ and Beyonce’s ‘Daddy Lessons’ and you’re basically there.

9. ‘Come To Mama’

“Everybody’s gotta love each other.” That’s the opening line to this bizarro country-by-Broadway track, and it doesn’t get much better. Here, Gaga ushers us all to her, asking us to lay down our arms and troubles and just start loving each other. Hardly new ground for her, but the horn section turns the song into a farce.

10. Hey Girl (feat. Florence Welch)

There’s been a fair few high profile indie names so far: Kevin Parker, Mark Ronson, Josh Homme, Blood Orange. Now Gaga has enlisted probably the only other singer on the planet who could match her level of vocal power: Florence Welch. And WHAT A SONG. Listen to that intro: the slinky, totally sexy synth stabs, the languid guitar strums, and Gaga and Welch trading sly ‘Hey girl’s’ over it all. It’s another odd turn, but a delightful one.

11. ‘Angel Down’

Gaga revealed in her Beats 1 interview that ‘Angel Down’ was written about the death of Trayvon Martin, which makes listening to it all the more chilling. “Doesn’t everyone belong/ In the arms of the sacred/ Why do we pretend we’re wrong?/ Has our young courage faded?” A stark way to finish the record.

(Deluxe Version tracks): ‘Grigio Girls’, ‘Just Another Day’, ‘Angel Down (Work Tape)’

In the case of Taylor Swift, sometimes the deluxe add-on tracks can offer up the best of the bunch. Not here. ‘Grigio Girls’ is a cringey ode to female friendship and pinot grigio, and ‘Just Another Day’ is another odd Broadway turn. ‘Angel Down (Work Tape)’ is an interesting listen in the way demo tapes generally are, but probably shouldn’t have rated an inclusion.

It’s clear that Joanne was Gaga’s calculated attempt at peeling back the layers, from the album title – her real middle name – to the blatant lack of synthetic production. The paring back does some good: her powerhouse vocals are given space to shine in a way they never were on ARTPOP or Born This Way. But in the space there is something missing, and that’s the sense of grandeur and spectacle that Gaga’s releases have always inspired.

Even when Lady Gaga bombs, she bombs spectacularly and with a purpose, see ARTPOP. Which makes Joanne feel underwhelming, there’s nothing in here that could be deemed equal of anything off her previous releases. If we look at Joanne in a vacuum, then in straddles pop, roots, country, and rock in a way that’s often uncomfortable. There are some undeniably great songs, but as a whole, Joanne is middling. In an attempt to strip back, Lady Gaga lost a piece of her soul.