Lady Gaga has traded in her towering platforms and mirror ball suits for cowboy boots and a bolero hat on her latest record Joanne. Gaga’s fifth album and latest solo release since 2013’s Art Pop sees her ditch the conceptual storylines for a stripped back, western-inspired motif. Mother Monster hasn’t completely shaken off her iconic electro-pop sound, though, giving the record a splash of space-cowboy.
The starting track, Diamond Heart, is the perfect example of this duality. Opening with bare vocals over acoustic guitar, the bridge builds up with siren-sounding synth before slamming into a textbook Lady G party anthemic chorus. A-Yo also has the New York native tipping her hat to classic Americana and country-western culture with a chorus that’s part pop-party and part hoedown.
Gaga slows it down a little on the album’s title track, opening with a delicately plucked acoustic guitar riff to reveal another stripped back number. An ode to her late aunty, Joanne shows Gaga at her most vulnerable as her vocals fluctuate between a soft folk twang to raspy yells in the chorus. “Heavens not ready for you,” she cries.
The album rears its head again as Gaga taps back into her countrified alter-ego with Josh Homme on guitar for John Wayne. “I just love a cowboy. I know it’s bad but can I just hang off the back of your horse and can you go a little FASTER?!” screams Gaga in the opening line. Telling a tale of an addictive relationship with a renegade cowboy, the track is driven by the sort of illustrative lyricism that Gaga is best at. “3am, Mustang speeding, two lovers heading for a dead end,” she sings through muffling production.
Dancin’ In Circles is a slinky pop tune that oozes sex appeal reminiscent of Art Pop’s Sexxx Dreams. “Tap down those boots while I beat around. Funk me down town,” sings the chorus.
Perfect Illusion is the album’s debut single and a collaboration with our very own Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. While it’s a classic Gaga dance track on the surface, the track sings of her heartbreak following the recent breakup with her ex-fiancé Taylor Kinney. “It wasn’t love, it wasn’t love. It was a perfect illusion,” she cries over whirring synth.
The second single from the album, Million Reasons, is an absolute belter of a ballad with a goose bump-inducing chorus. Meanwhile, Sinner’s Prayer has Gaga collaborating with the enigmatic Father John Misty. “I don’t want to break the heart of any other man but you,” Gaga sings in her faux-Southern drawl. The melancholic Come to Mama steps away from the western theme a little with doo-wop melodies and squealing saxophones that make it sound more like a 60’s show-tune than a country song.
Featuring the fabulous Florence Welch, Hey Girl has a 70s funk and disco vibe that borrows from the likes of Elton John. Florence’s buttery-smooth vocals are toned down but mix perfectly with Gaga’s to create a power pop pair we never knew we needed. A modern anthem for female empowerment and sisterhood, they sing “Hey girl, we could make it easier if we lift each other”.
Angel Down is a beautiful but heartbreaking tribute to the much publicised shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida during 2012. Over a sombre piano score and harp strings, Gaga sings “Shots were fired on the street by the church where we used to meet…Angel down. Why do people just stand around?”.
Next up, Grigio Girls is more of a light hearted homage to the sad girls of the world. “All the Pino Grigio girls pour your heart out. Watch your blues turn gold,” belts out Gaga. It also features one of my personal favourite lines on the entire album: “Spice Girl in this bitch!”, which is a plus.
The album closes with Just Another Day, a New York glam-pop song that was inspired by David Bowie and wouldn’t sound astray on the Broadway stage. Featuring a scatting Gaga and jazz legend Brian Newman on the trumpet, it isn’t the strongest song on the album, but it does the job of closing the record on a more hopeful note.
Joanne is an eclectic mix of retro throwbacks, no-frills acoustics and western whimsy that shows Lady Gaga taking one of the biggest risks of her career. While we should know better than to try to predict what this pop chameleon will do next, Joanne is a refreshing 360 flip from her usual strict electro-pop style. And whether you love it or hate, there’s no denying that the bitch is back.