Lady Gaga is a pop star of the Glee generation. She doesn't do subtle. Whether she's singing standards with Tony Bennett, paying tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys, or playing a riot grrrl in the music video for her single “Perfect Illusion,” the effect is that of a musical theater kid trying on costumes she found in the high school storage closet, not a chameleonic performer flexing her innate versatility. In fact, Gaga appeared at her most authentic while performing a medley of show tunes from The Sound of Music at last year's Academy Awards.
Thus, her latest incarnation, as a country crooner, an Americana troubadour, traveling from one sticky-floored dive bar to the next with her trusty guitar in hand, feels unearned. “Young wild American/Lookin' to be somethin'/Out of school go-go'n/For a hundred or two,” she sings on “Diamond Heart,” the opening track of her fifth album, Joanne. The problem with this rags-to-riches narrative is that the school in question was New York University (and a private school on the Upper East Side before that), and her stint as a go-go dancer was, by her own account, more of an anthropological experiment than a means of survival.
Of course, Gaga wouldn't be the first artist to romanticize her rise to fame. Whether the details of her tale are fact or fiction, or somewhere in between, her propensity for open vowels and painfully elongated syllables dulls the edges of what is lyrically one of her rawest songs to date. “Some asshole broke me in/Wrecked all my innocence/I'll just keep go-go'n/And this dance is on you,” she sings defiantly in a mostly unaffected manner before launching into the same dubious quasi-continental accent that mars the album's lead single.
While she may have eschewed the outlandish costumes, Gaga has replaced them with a different kind of pretense.
Five albums in, Gaga has yet to display genuine emotional vulnerability, to say nothing of vocal nuance. The acoustic title track, a purported homage to her aunt who died at 19, boasts a sublime hook and a relatively restrained vocal performance, but Gaga warbles through other ballads, like the repetitive “Million Reasons,” like a bull in a china shop. The reggae-inflected “Dancin' in Circles,” an ode to masturbation as emotional salve that provides some levity on an otherwise humorless album, is the sole offering here that features the kind of studied pop-vocal cadences that prompted many to declare Gaga the new queen of pop.
Gaga's fetishizing of blue-collar men as “red-state treasure[s]” on “John Wayne” is delivered with the same swagger she brandished on The Fame Monster's “Teeth.” But whether it's Josh Homme's snaky guitar licks on both that song and “Diamond Heart,” the infectious bassline of “Sinner's Prayer,” or the backward loops and dreamy psychedelic flourishes of “Angel Down,” Joanne's real stars are its guest musicians and producers. Even the arrangements and melodies, however, occasionally slip into derivativeness, from the feel-good “Come to Mama,” which aims for Southern soul but sounds more like a Christmas jingle, to the Florence Welch duet “Hey Girl,” which apes both Elton John and Prince.
Though Joanne lacks the indelible pop hooks that those two influences—not to mention Gaga herself—are famous for, the album is more sonically consistent and thematically focused than the singer's last solo effort, the regressive Artpop. With Gaga's newly stripped-down image and rootsy musical palette, Joanne would have made for a more logical evolutionary follow-up to 2011's rock-tinged Born This Way. But while she may have eschewed the outlandish costumes for now, Gaga has merely replaced them with a different kind of pretense.