Real talk: Upon first listen, I wasn't quite sure what to make of Joanne — Lady Gaga's first solo album in three years, which made its debut October 21. There is something disjointed about this release, in a sense that hasn't been true of her other records; the tracks jump from synth pop to show tunes, dance anthems (one, notably, made with Mark Ronson) to soulful ballads. It's frenetic and vengeful in one moment; melancholic and aching in the next. And yet —regardless of what's happening on a singular song level — the overall vibe, heard in track by track sequence, is incredibly cohesive. Joanne is a record about heartbreak; how it pulls you down, how to rail against it, and who to turn to when you're feeling blue. Named for the singer's late aunt, who died at the tender age of 19, it is also a demonstration of its creator's truly impressive range — and how far she's come since the early days. I was not impressed by the disco stick mess that was Artpop, her 2013 album that relied so heavily on electronic kitsch that Gaga's considerable pipes seemed to get lost in the mix. But then again, I am not a huge fan of her earlier albums, either. What's good on the radio or at the club isn't necessarily something you seek out beyond those outlets, and frankly, I have long found her "little monsters" messaging cloying and, at times, ill-informed. Cheek to Cheek, recorded with Tony Bennett and released in 2014, is in an entirely different echelon than The Fame (2008), and even Born This Way (2011); I suspect something about performing old standards with one of the last remaining greats might have given Gaga the permission she deserves to actually work with her natural sound instead of against it. The best tracks on Joanne play up her vaudevillian abilities to great advantage; the less impressive ones seem to slip back into top 40 mode, and in those, she sounds like every other pop princess vying for airtime. The truth is that — compared to Miley and Katy and even Taylor — Lady Gaga's voice and talent are in a class of their own. Joanne is proof of that.
At first listen, it's easy to write it off as a basic bitch anthem — or even a satire.
"Diamond Heart," the first track, is primed to become a danceable hit — though it might have to go through the DJ remix machine before it hits a peak; the same goes for "A-YO," a witty and confident song that I felt lost momentum in the chorus but kicks into high gear during the verse. The title track, "Joanne," dips into a different register of Gaga's voice. With the light touch percussion and guitar picking, it sounds almost like a lullaby, in a good way. "John Wayne", "Dancing In Circles", and the single, "Perfect Illusion" are all perfectly catchy, and tend back toward the kind of territory we've come to expect from Lady Gaga. Where Joanne really starts to pick up is with "Million Reasons" — and then it's full-steam ahead. This song, which begins "you're giving me a million reasons to let you go / you're giving me a million reasons to quit the show," can't help but hint toward Gaga's breakup with her fiancé, Taylor Kinney. The instrumentation, and intensity, builds beautifully; melodically, there's a country-meets-Broadway mood at play. I mean that as a good thing: It's a gorgeous simple song. If I had to pick a favorite song, it would be a tight tie between "Just Another Day" — a song that could have been written by Paul McCartney circa the early '70s — and "Grigio Girls." The former is just plain fun: There's a lightheartedness to it that's largely absent from the rest of Joanne, and even though it's a love song it's not one that seems to be taking itself too seriously. The latter had to grow on me, but now that it has, I suspect it'll work its way into regular playlist rotation. At first listen, it's easy to write it off as a basic bitch anthem — or even a satire. The song title refers to a certain kind of white wine-drinking woman (you know one; I am one), and how she turns to her girlfriends when times are tough. It's a girl squad song, and depending on how you feel about the word "squad," it might come off as a touch too on-the-nose. But it's also anthemic in a way that made me want to give my besties a call to tell them I love them — and to say thank you for being there for the tough stuff. Maybe this is Gaga's song for her girlfriends; maybe it's about how — when everything else seems like it's broken and messed up — women get one another through. In any case, cheers to all the Grigio girls: You know who you are, and you've got Gaga to thank for your new theme song.