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Review: Lady Gaga, Artpop

Artpop’s most naked, straightforward pop moments that are the album’s most redemptive.

 

3.5

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Lady Gaga, Artpop

Lady Gaga explained the premise behind her new album, Artpop, to The Guardian this way: “I stood in front of a mirror and I took off the wig and I took off the makeup and I unzipped the outfit and I put a black cap on my head and I covered my body in a black catsuit and I looked in the mirror and I said: ’OK, now you need to show them you can be brilliant without that.’” To wit, the initial publicity photos released for the album picture Gaga with comparatively little makeup or clothing and donning her natural hair color (if not her actual hair), suggesting that the singer was indeed, finally, stripping away the pretense of her ceaseless performance-art persona. And the lyrics to “Aura,” the very first song that leaked from the album, appeared to bear this out: “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burqa?”

But it was ultimately just a tease. While Gaga may be naked on the album’s cover, it’s telling that her body isn’t flesh and blood, but a statue. No sooner had the lead single, “Applause,” been released than Gaga was quickly reverting to outlandish costumes almost like a reflex. The choice of “Applause,” a love letter to her fans (or, rather, her fan’s love), as Artpop’s first single is indicative of Gaga’s continued enabling of her co-dependent relationship with her “little monsters,” and rather than open herself up to a wider audience, the song only further cocoons her. And her articulation of the album’s theme has been, to be generous, ever-evolving. As she admits on the title track, “Artpop could be anything”!

This lack of clarity and focus is reflected in the music itself. Though the dismal, trap-inspired dud “Jewels n’ Drugs” flaunts Gaga’s versatility, it primarily serves to highlight the album’s lamentable throw-everything-against-the-wall approach. (The second single, “Do What U Want,” more seamlessly integrates urban elements into Gaga’s signature EDM aesthetic.) Artpop isn’t the sound of an artist moving forward, but of one scrambling to maintain, if not reclaim, her position among today’s pop elite. It’s a strategic step backward, with songs like “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams” channeling the vapid party girl of The Fame’s “LoveGame” and “Just Dance,” and “Mary Jane Holland” and “Gypsy” reminiscent of standout tracks from Born This Way.

What makes Artpop impossible to dismiss, however, is that when Gaga revisits more conventional pop sounds and structures, the results are often sublime—and surprisingly revealing. She alternately conjures Debbie Harry and a helium-voiced pop cipher a la Britney Spears or Paris Hilton on “Sexxx Dreams,” but when the music drops out and she coyly addresses the object of her subliminal fantasies, you get the sense that Gaga is finally giving us a glimpse of the real Stefani Germanotta. And though the euphoric “Gypsy” is essentially a rewrite of “The Edge of Glory,” the song examines Gaga’s unyielding lust for the spotlight far more effectively than “Applause” does.

“G.U.Y.” doesn’t really bring anything new to the canon of pop songs exploring sexual role reversal, but Gaga executes it like a dedicated apprentice. In fact, that’s the fundamental lesson of Artpop: Gaga is still very much a pupil of pop, scavenging for inspiration like an undergraduate in a late-night cram session. Cribbing from Sun Ra by way of French duo Zombie Zombie, “Venus” confirms that she knows how to write catchy hooks, just not what to do with them or, more importantly, how to self-edit. Despite some welcome hints of B-52’s-style camp, the song’s daft spoken bridge basically amounts to an elementary tutorial on astronomy. There was a certain wit to “Paparazzi” and “Telephone,” particularly the videos, but Gaga’s sense of humor has largely evaporated, replaced with an air of self-importance in both her activist and musical works, making it difficult to determine if a song like “Venus” is genuinely intended to be avant garde or if she’s just taking the piss.

Of course, Gaga continues to be a student of Madonna, and the songs that most plainly draw from the headmistress of pop’s oeuvre prove to be some of the album’s grooviest. Remarkably, given that the track was co-written by one of the producers responsible for “Born This Way,” “Fashion!” isn’t bashful about its nods to both “Holiday” and, in what will inevitably scan as a dig, “Material Girl” (“I feel alive when I transform/But this love’s not ma-teri-aaal!”), while the slick Eurodisco of the title track conjures Madge’s Confessions on a Dance Floor.

Coincidentally, “Artpop,” a tribute to hybrids and contrast, is the closest Gaga comes to establishing a coherent theme for the album. “We could, we could belong together: art, pop,” she chants, her robotic timbre juxtaposed with operatic background vocals. She marries eccentric, glitchy verses and an anthemic pop hook on “Aura,” and deftly emblematizes the often-overlooked lineage between the aggression of metal and techno on “Swine.” In the end, though, it’s Artpop’s most naked, straightforward pop moments that are the album’s most redemptive. As Gaga concedes: “Sometimes the simplest move is right/The melody that you choose can rescue you.”

Label: Interscope Release Date: November 11, 2013 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much

Modern trappings do little to obscure the fact that frontman Kurt Wagner feels more out of time than ever.

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Lambchop
Photo: Merge/Steve Gullick

After more than two decades of dealing in musical anachronisms, one might assume that Lambchop’s recent forays into electronics mean that frontman Kurt Wagner has finally gotten with the times. Defined by synths, vocoders, and drum machines, 2016’s FLOTUS and now This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) are daring departures from Wagner’s previous attempts to mine outmoded styles of the past for new truths. But these modern trappings are just misdirection, doing little to obscure the fact that he seems to be feeling more out of time than ever.

Perhaps inevitably, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) isn’t as sprawling or stylistically immersive as FLOTUS. When you put out an album whose lead single is an 18-minute synth dirge, it’s probably a good idea to take a bit of a step back for the follow-up. This album lacks the stitched-together quality of FLOTUS, that certain emphasis on atmosphere, texture, and the unexpected, rather than structure and melody, that makes that album alternately impenetrable and transcendent. This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is 20 minutes shorter, and far less formless. Even its more abstract passages, like the nearly five minutes of roaming piano and wispy horns that close the title track, feel more familiar within Lambchop’s pre-established paradigm of reimaging old genres—in this case, lounge jazz—and as new again than the alien soundscapes of FLOTUS did. The Wagner who spent much of the 2000s trying to turn himself into the world’s strangest, crustiest Vegas lounge singer is recognizable here as well. He’s just singing through a vocoder now.

No one could credibly accuse Lambchop of making conventional pop music, but new collaborator Matt McCaughan, who co-wrote over half the album with Wagner and is responsible for much of its electronic instrumentation, at least steers the band in a less abstract direction. The whining synth motif that pops up in the middle of “The December-ish You” is a sneakily good earworm, and if it weren’t for Wagner’s creaking old-young voice, “Everything for You” might sound like something you would hear at Sephora.

That’s not to say Wagner sounds anything but disaffected by modernity. Just as FLOTUS’s title falsely promised political musings in an election year, the fact that all but one of this album’s eight song titles are written in second person is just a canard—as if anyone wouldn’t notice that the only person Wagner is singing about is himself. A song title like “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” seems to promise a withering indictment of some behind-the-times character, but in reality, it’s just about Wagner sitting in a car and trying to reconcile his own place in the dizzying 2019 cultural landscape. Political references abound throughout This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), but they’re mostly just context-free phrases: “Be it so un-presidential,” “The news was fake, the drugs were real,” “Fell asleep during Vietnam,” and so on.

Rather than grapple with politics, Wagner sounds like he’d much rather revel in daily mundanities: “I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar/Watching surfing and it’s amazing,” he sings on “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You.” In so doing, Wagner culminates a retreat into himself. Whereas Lambchop once boasted a grand, 12-plus-piece lineup, the band is now smaller and more insular than ever before. But Lambchop has always been whatever Wagner wants it to be, and if he wants “you” to mean “me” this time around, it simply does. “I see your reflection,” he sings at the very end of the gentle, acoustic-based closer “Flowers,” as Nashville legend Charlie McCoy’s honey-sweet harmonica billows behind him, “and I say hello.”

Label: Merge Release Date: March 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Meat Puppets Remain Resilient on the Mellow Dusty Notes

The album marks the band’s first reunion that feels truly consequential.

3.5

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Dusty Notes

The Meat Puppets have gone on hiatus and subsequently reunited at least four times now, rivaling any cash-grabbing classic-rock dinosaurs still out there in their ability to put boomer butts in arena seats. With the possible exception of guitarist Curt Kirkwood’s short-lived, Y2K-era solo project, it’s not as though the post-prime iterations of the Meat Puppets have been especially unwelcome. But their 15th studio album, Dusty Notes, marks the first such reunion that feels truly consequential, thanks to original drummer Derrick Bostrom returning to the fold for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!

Anyone who might want to trace a direct lineage between the new album and alt-rock classics like Meat Puppets II, and who hasn’t kept up with the band since they broke up for the first time, will of course notice the audible effects of the intervening 35 years: Curt and brother Cris’s low, calm voices; the slower tempos; the preponderance of acoustic guitars, often in place of fuzzy electric ones. One might also wonder if the band took the wrong lessons from Meat Puppets II’s acclaim. The idea of three former hardcore punks with acid-blasted brains playing a twisted psychedelic version of country and Americana music was novel and fascinating in 1984 and remained so 10 years later when Kurt Cobain invited them on stage to play during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Remove the acid and hardcore, however, and you just get middle-aged Arizonians playing straightforward country music, like Dusty Notes’s pointlessly faithful cover of the Don Gibson standard “Sea of Heartbreak.”

Fortunately, though an old-school country aesthetic defines the album—the banjo picking on “Nine Pins,” the sweet hillbilly harmonies on “Outflow”—Curt’s irrepressible songwriting quirks make the rest of Dusty Notes anything but formulaic. The post-Bostrom Meat Puppets have often veered much closer to modern alt-country than the hardcore of their early days, and Dusty Notes is no exception; in fact, it might be the mellowest of their albums to date.

With key assistance from keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, Curt turns what are at first blush prototypical country strummers into weird, melodic concoctions. Stabinsky’s contributions—circus organ on “Nine Pins,” Mariachi-like synths on the title track—often leap out immediately from the mix. But it’s Curt’s songwriting that makes those same songs stick in the brain, from the demented polka groove of “Warranty” to the sunny Tex-Mex hooks and characteristic stoner turns of phrase on the title track.

If anything is missing from Dusty Notes, it’s certainly not hard-rock dalliances. Besides, with both Stabinsky and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood—Curt’s son—abetting the original trio, the album features a fuller, richer sonic character than any of the band’s early albums ever managed. Rather, there’s not enough of Curt’s guitar playing. His inimitable jangle riffs from the ‘80s and fuzzed-out, spacey heroics from later years are both in short supply, which does render Dusty Notes more conventional-sounding than most Meat Puppets albums.

It’s unlikely anyone predicted that a 2019 Meat Puppets album would feature a return to the blown-out arena-metal of 1989’s Monster, but that’s exactly what we get with “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy,” complete with Dungeon Master-friendly verses like “Your chariot of protons/Slices through the gloom/Drawn by a pharaoh/Risen from the tomb.” It’s fun, but once the novelty and nostalgia wear off, it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the songs here that don’t quite sound like anything the band has done before, like “Unfrozen Memory,” a dramatic slow-burner that melds distorted guitar with Stabinsky’s expert, baroque-style harpsichord, or “The Great Awakening,” on which silky, entrancing acoustic arpeggios drift into a tough, bluesy chorus and come back again like you’re falling in and out of a dream.

These particular songs exemplify what the Meat Puppets, at their best, have always been about. Not their singing or their playing or their lyrics, which were all often utterly incoherent even at the band’s peak. It’s their ability to evoke emotional states—some precious feeling half-remembered from childhood, or perhaps a really good acid trip—that has allowed their music to remain so resilient for almost 40 years.

Label: Megaforce Release Date: March 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2z_rY1Fjk

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xvjnay4kS8

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4vSbVWm6F8

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)


MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.


Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.


Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.


Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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