“Call me Joanne.”
That’s the preface Lady Gaga gives before her performances these days, where the artist who once popped out of an egg assumes a new persona: the eponymous Joanne, her late aunt, with an album full of country-pop tracks someone your own aunt’s age would probably listen to.
Of course, if you’ve heard the red herring that is Perfect Illusion then you’ll probably want to call her a lot of other names instead, but rest assured that cacophonous gimmick-on-a-key-change isn’t indicative of the album as a whole, which is the most reserved and pared back she’s ever been. And say what you want about her – let’s face it, after Artpop we all certainly did – there’s still no denying how fully she embraces a character when she commits to one.
In that sense, the ethos of Joanne is still quintessentially Gaga, that being it’s very much pop as performance art. However this time it’s aimed more at country roads than red carpets, more in line with that pink hat than a meat dress – A-YO is pure handclap radio fodder, a raucous guitar-driven track that ticks so many happy boxes it may as well be subtitled ‘From and Inspired by ABC’s Nashville‘. Never a bad thing, and it certainly aims for the same mass-appeal broad brushstrokes.
Funnily enough, when Gaga colours within the boxes of her own creation she does rather well in this new guise. If she takes inspiration from the likes of Lucinda Williams on the title track, she very much makes her own mark with it; even if it goes more Lady Antebellum than Lady Gaga on Million Reasons, it still resonates with as much heart and gusto as one would expect from subject matter this close to her heart.
But now the bad news. Even when you call her Joanne, the album still has the name Lady Gaga plastered over it, and that theatrical side is never going to leave her. It’s what scuppers the opening track Diamond Heart the same way it did Perfect Illusion, with Gaga so determined to prove she can sang that she ends up giving it so much welly that it demolishes any sense of structure and sentiment. There’s also the fact that even when Gaga does country-pop you expect her to subvert it somehow, but songs like Sinner’s Prayer and Come To Mama come and go so quickly that they sound like any karaoke singer in a southern bar. The most Gaga thing she does is Dancin’ In Circles, but in the context of this record it sticks out as much as a baby pink hat at the Monster Ball.
On that note, while the subject matter does seem personal it doesn’t feel like it’s particularly accessible to anyone other than Stefani Germanotta, let alone her Little Monsters. But when she gets it right, it’s utterly gorgeous: the Florence Welch-featuring highlight Hey Girl is a psych-R&B revelation that makes us forgive a lot of the melodrama, the potential glass-shattering war of two banshees – notorious for a lack of restraint – instead comes together as an effortless glide of complementary voices, the musical equivalent of Olympic figure skating. More of that and the memory of Joanne would have stayed alive with us all for years to come; for now we’re just thankful Lady Gaga’s at least given up her Tony Bennett phase for some real and, erm, non-sartorial meat.